I don't know, but I know you don't know!

by Brian 20. June 2018 06:10

If I've heard the phrase "I don't know, but I know you don't know" once, I've heard it dozens of times over the years in my apologetics conversations. This assertion is usually followed by an accusation of arrogance and a rebuke to walk me back to a proper agnostic posture. It's as if one's claim to know is an affront to another's uncertainty. Why is that? It's hard to say exactly, but I suspect the underlying motivations are mostly emotional since it is rarely a tenable philosophical position. Let's take a look at why this phrase ought to be avoided.

What does it mean to know and what kind of knowledge are we talking about? When discussing a controversial topic, it is propositional-knowledge that leads to the above accusation. No one has ever said to me: "I don't know, but I know you don't know your wife, or how to ride a bike." Instead, we are interested here in claims about things taking the form of person S knows that proposition P. So what does it mean for S to know that P? Traditional views of knowledge vary around the notion of justified true belief (JTB.)  In order for S to know that P: S must have justification for their belief, P must be true, and S must believe that P.

The latter two aspects of the tripartite view are relatively clear; you do not know that P if P is false or if you don't believe it. It is the aspect of justification that is somewhat controversial. What does justification mean? Mostly it is good reasoning for believing something. What does good reasoning look like? A minimalist response called the deontological view (DV) gives us a place to start by placing a low burden on the knower:

S is justified in believing that P if and only if S believes that P while it is not the case that S is obliged to refrain from believing that P.

Given this view of justification: I know my keys are hanging downstairs if it is the case they are hanging downstairs, I believe it, and I am not obliged to refrain from believing it. What would obligate me to not believe you might wonder? Some other knowledge acting as a defeater would be an example. Say my wife says she sees my keys in the car and not where they usually are. If I trust her assessment more than my recollection, then I am obliged not to believe the keys are where I initially thought they were.

On the other hand, I would not know it's raining tomorrow in Tallahassee, even if I believe this proposition and it turns out to rain tomorrow if my sole justification for believing is the prediction of a fortune cookie. I'm obliged to refrain from believing the printed prophecies in fortune cookies. Fortune cookies confer no justification in this case, and if it's my only justification, I don't have any.

There are more rigorous approaches to justification than DV. In our current culture of scientism, some form of evidence is often a requirement. Does S have evidence for believing that P? Is it good evidence? These controversial criteria are debatable within the discipline of epistemology and not something I want to get into here. Giving the modern skeptic the benefit of the doubt; I'll concede justification for the kind of knowledge we are discussing requires more than a lack of defeaters obligating me to refrain from believing. I'll go as far here to say justification requires some positive external grounding -- a sound argument based on evidence being a good example. Now that we have set some terms on what knowledge is, let's move on to the problem.

So how could S', who doesn't know that P, know S doesn't know that P? The short answer from the JTB-perspective of knowledge is uncomplicated. Leaving out the question of the sincerity of S by assuming S believes that P: S' would have to know that P is false or that S has no justification. Take my example of the car keys. Let's say S' tells S: "I don't know if your car keys are hanging downstairs or not, I just know you don't know that they are hanging downstairs." How could S' know this if she doesn't know whether or not they are hanging downstairs?  She can't solely on the truth-value of P because she doesn't know whether P is true or false. This truth-value angle is a dead end for S'.

But let's imagine S' took an epistemology class and challenges the justification-claims of S. "Why do you think your keys are hanging downstairs," she asks? Now S may have all sorts of justification for believing that P (I won't bore you with examples.) Suffice it to say, S might be justified in believing that P. Therefore, S' has a burden here because she is making the claim to know S is unjustified in believing that P. That burden is not just difficult to satisfy in the car-keys example, but in your typical real-world discussion of complex and controversial topics as well. Let's take a look at something more representative to see what I mean.

S claims the universe has a cause of its existence (P). S' says: "I've seen the evidence and arguments and on balance, I don't know, maybe it does, maybe it doesn't. I just know you don't know that it does." S' freely admits she doesn't know if P is true or false. S' is agnostic on P. After S tries to persuade S' with arguments Q...Qn, S' says: "I find all of your arguments unpersuasive." Now does S' remaining agnostic and unpersuaded mean S has no justification for believing that P? Not necessarily, and in many cases, not likely.

Say S gives the following argument Q as justification for P:

P1 - Things that begin to exist have a cause.
P2 - The universe began to exist.
P (conclusion) - Therefore, the universe has a cause.

The above deductive argument is valid; if the premises are true, the conclusion follows logically and inescapably. Therefore, if S' knows S has no justification for believing that P, she must know (at least) Q provides no justification for believing that P. But how could she possibly know this without knowing either P1 or P2 is false or unjustified? She can't. She cannot logically infer P1 or P2 is false merely because she is unconvinced P1 and P2 are true. Nor can she know the belief of S in P1 or P2 is unjustified unless she knows all of the justification-claims of S for the premises.

What typically transpires while discussing a valid argument like Q is S' says: "I'm not convinced P1 or P2 is true. So your argument is unpersuasive." That's fine; how persuasive Q is to S' is partly up to S', but that hardly means Q is unsound, thereby providing no justification for S. With a deductive argument, justification is conferred as follows:

Q provides justification for S if Q is valid and upon S performing their epistemic duty (considering the arguments and evidence) for P1 and P2 find both premises more plausible than their negation. 

Of course, this doesn't mean P1 and P2 are true! Nor does it say the conclusion (P) is true. Keep in mind we are talking about justification, not truth-values. Of course, S' being agnostic on P1 and P2 may enter into a regress and attack the justification for believing the premises. But this rarely happens and when it does, the problem is merely pushed to the next level down. When S' fails to ask for the justification from S for P1 and P2, then we know S' doesn't know S is unjustified.

I've given a somewhat technical explanation as to why the phrase "I don't know, but I know you don't know" is usually philosophically untenable. The person who levels this claim doesn't know if the proposition in question is true or not. Nor do they likely know all of the possible ways you justify your belief. They don't know if you know or not. Perhaps a more straightforward way to address this kind of unreasonableness would be to respond: How do you know I don't know? But that approach leaves me little to write on. As for humility: If you don't know if something is true or not, then just admit it without attacking your interlocutor. The truly humble attitude is: Maybe you do know; I'm just not sure. This response is not only more reasonable; it is more likely to get the other person to consider your position.

The Fool Says

by Brian 4. June 2018 03:02

Soon after becoming a follower of Christ, I ran across Psalm 14:1 (and Psalm 53:1). The author writes: "The fool says in his heart there is no God." Having just transitioned from non-theism, I thought this verse somewhat harsh. Afterall, I wasn't a fool at 30 and now suddenly wise at 31. All I could do at the time was put these words in the cognitive-dissonance category and move on. Today, I wholeheartedly agree with the writer. I realize I had years ago misconstrued a fool with one who is slow of mind. I similarly had the wrong idea about what it means to be wise. So what are wisdom and foolishness and why is the latter a defining attribute for the man who denies God?

 
 
Let's set some terms at the outset. Wisdom is poorly defined these days to mean not much more than common sense or good judgment. But what is common is not always good, and what is good, not always common. Such definitions are subjective and unclear. Taking an objective and scriptural position: Wisdom is the right application of knowledge such that it aligns with the Lord's intentions. The closer the alignment, the wiser we are. When we are foolish, we fail to apply rationality in ways that align with His purpose. The fool's thoughts are askew from God's.
 
Foolishness may arise from intelligence and careful deliberation. Wisdom may be discerned quickly and without forethought. Neither qualities are necessarily dependent upon our natural talents. A person might be highly intelligent and foolish, or have a sub-100 IQ and be wise. Since believers and unbelievers alike cover the full spectrum of intellectual ability, mental acuity is not a prerequisite, nor the lack thereof a preclusion, for acknowledging God. Something else drives the alignment of our understanding, regardless of how limited or how vast that understanding might be.
 
Scripture is clear that everyone ought to know God. Psalm 19:1 says: "The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork." Romans 1:18-20 builds on this: "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse." Not only is the denier of God without excuse, given the sufficient evidence for His existence revealed in creation, but Paul says unrighteousness leads to a suppression of truth. One commentator clarified this suppression as "Truth held in the bondage of immorality."
 
From Augustine to Nietzsche, noted throughout history is the primacy of will over reason. When desire fixates on what is contrary to knowledge, a capitulation of the intellect takes place. We twist the truth (rationalize) or enter into denial and stubbornness. Our understanding is at the mercy of our will and affections. This conflict takes place at our noetic core; a place Scripture refers to as the heart.
 
We might think the heart as that part of the soul merely concerned with passion and desire. But Jesus said that "out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts" (Mark 7:21). Luke 1:51 refers to the proud "thoughts of their hearts." So the heart is also involved in the higher parts of the brain. The heart can soften creating a humble desire for the light of truth. It can also harden where the intellect is wrestled into a darkened position and pinned to the mat. Ephesians 4 describes how obdurance leads to this futility of mind: "Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart." The intellect is downstream from the heart.
 
Another word oft misunderstood, unrighteousness, put simply, is the state of being in sin, a state contrary to the divine law which follows necessarily from God's nature. Unrighteous acts are sinful acts. Righteousness, on the other hand, is freedom from sin. Paul states in Romans 3: "No one is righteous, no not one." But it is interesting to note what directly follows: "No one seeks God." Again we see the linkage from unrighteousness to a foolishness that denies the Creator.
 
Piecing things together we can show a complete causal chain: 
 
Unrighteousness -> the heart hardens, grows dishonest, desiring darkness and things contrary to God -> the will wrestles the intellect into ignorance of God and misalignment with His intentions -> foolishness
 
Righteousness -> the heart softens, grows honest, desiring the light of truth -> the will stimulates the intellect into a diligent and open inquiry of God and His aims -> wisdom
 
The Holy Spirit plays a critical role in the causal chain to wisdom. Abiding in Christ allows us to walk by the Spirit who counsels us on precisely how to align our thinking with God's intentions. This counseling process, where His spirit testifies with our spirit, involves our noetic core in ways beyond what I'm prepared (or able) to write on here. Nevertheless, this interaction is an essential element of the process, and I would be remiss not to mention it. 
 
There is also a feedback loop to consider: Foolishness leads to more sin and unrighteousness. This loop has the potential to drive our spiritual state into utter depravity. Similarly, there is a feedback loop with wisdom within the causal chain. John 3 illustrates this concept: "The light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” Doing what is in alignment with God's aims draws us further into the light.
 
We see the writer's claim is justified. The foolish deny God, and their state of ignorance is not unexpected given Scripture. Righteousness leads to wisdom, unrighteousness to foolishness. The Holy Spirit plays a crucial role in leading us into the light. Sin is dangerous as it gives birth to foolishness and more sin, creating a positive feedback loop driving one into darkness. God has carefully ordained the world with enough knowledge of himself so we are without excuse. As Pascal wrote: "There is enough light for those who only desire to see and enough obscurity for those who have a contrary disposition." But there are greater forces at work than mere evidence upon our intellect pushing us off the fence of general revelation.

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Ideologically Sound

by Brian 15. November 2017 02:59

According to Jordan Peterson, "Ideologies are pathological oversimplifications; clubs, the kind you hit people with, as well as the clubs you belong to."  Considering the level of polarization we see in our country today, with the ideological divide vast and growing, it is tempting to think Dr. Peterson is right.  Wouldn’t the world be better off if we would just loosen the shackles of ideology?  Can’t we all become free-thinkers, open-minded and impartial?  No more worldview. All opinions equally valued; a culture poised for progress!

But what is an ideology?  Is it conceivable or even desirable to rid ourselves of them entirely?  While I believe Dr. Peterson is warning of the genuine danger posed by uncompromising ideological assumptions, I doubt he would want to dispose of an essential aspect of rational thought necessary for thinking beyond the childish and the petty. Since we are bound to have an ideology, it is worth knowing how to obtain a good one.
 
An ideology is a systematic body of concepts. A worldview is a comprehensive conception of the world. These are the belief structures everyone uses to make sense of the world. We need them. They are part of our properly functioning cognitive faculties and necessary for productive, meaningful thought. There are no purist freethinkers; only the unabashed-dogmatic and the deluded-dogmatic who virtue-signal how unbiased and broad-minded they are. Few ideas of any merit start from the atomic and axiomatic. No one gives the story of their life like Bugs Bunny: "In the beginning...two tiny amoebae." We nearly always conceive on top of the previously-conceived.
 
If I've learned anything in the past thirty years as an electrical and software engineer, it is that large complex systems would be impossible without component-reuse. From your iPhone to your computer's OS; modern hardware and software systems are developed using nested hierarchies of components within components. No engineer in the world could design the iPhone one transistor at a time. The microprocessor alone is 3.3 billion of them! It is itself an assembly of modules within modules, refined and optimised by developers over the years. Complex architectures build on the past success of prior complexity. The same goes for ideology. Freethinking from a handful of axioms cannot a substantive-worldview make. Ignoring the established ideas and philosophies of the past ensures a foundation both sparse and shallow. Sound ideology builds on the history of thought.
 
So how do we separate the wheat from the chaff? What are some guidelines for a sound worldview? First and foremost we start with solid ground. If your first-principles do not correspond with reality, then you are building on sand. It does not matter how consistently your ideas mesh with your core beliefs if those beliefs are false. So just as technological advancement rides on top of the tried and true discoveries of the past, a substantive worldview builds on a bedrock of propositions that have withstood the reasoned and experiential tests of time. While drawing from history is not contrary to progress, ignoring it might be. Modern ideology often neglects the venerated and tested foundations of rock, for the shifting sand of cultural acceptance, iconoclasm, and a hatred of tradition. Such bias leads to the chaff of repeated-error and cognitive dissonance against the backdrop of historical fact.
 
We ought to feed our ideologies that which corresponds to reality rather than that which favors culture or personal preference. In The Prince, by Machiavelli, we see idealism is not merely passed over by realism; the cultural ideologies of the day are considered irrelevant compared with objective historical fact and what it takes to survive as a prince. Machiavelli writes: "A man who wishes to live up to his professions of virtue in every circumstance soon meets with what destroys him among so many who are evil." According to Machiavelli, you can keep to the conventions, follow the ideology of the day, or you can survive by concerning yourself with the cold hard facts. Unfortunately, we see this less and less today. It remains tough to get through to a culture more interested in feelings than in finding the truth. As Thomas Sowell puts it: "It is usually futile to try to talk facts and analysis to people who are enjoying a sense of moral superiority in their ignorance." But facts must take precedence over feelings to form a sound ideology.
 
Granted, being ideological comes with risk. Working from a substantive worldview is problematic. Cognitive dissonance may cause us to tune-out and dig-in. We may end up stuck on sources filtered by our confirmation-bias. It is much easier to be incorrigible than to experience a shift in worldview, especially when ideas challenge the foundation of our belief-structure. The taller the Jenga tower, the bigger the crash when a load-bearing block from the base is yanked out. If we have erected comprehensive ideology, it is much harder to accept a contrary foundational truth. 
 
If we are to build at all, however, the risk must be taken. The alternative is triviality or the fetters of skepticism. Extreme open-mindedness will not mitigate the risk or even help us on our journey. As Chesterton aptly put it: "Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid." If we want our ideologies to be sound, we must take the risk, engage honestly in the marketplace of ideas, and grab hold of the truth.
 
We need humility as we engage others. When I switched from a foundation of atheistic materialism to Christian theism, it was very humiliating. Radical paradigm shifts require us to admit we are wrong at the very core of our thinking - and no one likes to hear they are wrong. Nevertheless, our ideas must be open to the sort of critical rationalism one finds in Karl Popper. We ought to welcome the falsification of a bad idea; the error-correction process leading to refinement. Desiring only the confirmation of others stunts development. The fascist movement on today's college campuses, where any unwanted speech is considered "hate" and therefore censorable, is precisely the wrong environment. We need a free exchange of ideas while remaining unoffended and humble to foster healthy ideological development. Seek out those who think differently but are capable of having a cordial and thoughtful exchange.
 
Therefore, despite the dangers, we ought still to view ideologies as essential to deep, meaningful thought. Rarely are revolutionary ideas built from the ground up. We develop our substantive worldview on a solid foundation of truth and recognize the historical development of knowledge. Personal preference and cultural pressure must take a back seat to the cold hard facts of reality. We accept the risk and proceed with humility, being receptive to correction when the truth leads us in a new direction. These are the guidelines for the development of a sound ideology. It pleases me to know these harmonize well within our life in Christ. Though the deliverables of science, philosophy, and politics shape much of our worldview; the significant questions of origin, purpose, morality, and destiny find their ideological support around the core view of God, and how we come to know Him. Christ himself is to be our ideological foundation.
 
Christ is the Logos; the Word made flesh. He is the solid rock, the foundation upon which to build a substantive worldview. We lay down our soul, the locus of will, intellect, and desire. We place it, and the cares and worries of the world, at the Cross, taking every thought captive to Christ. This commitment allows truth to drown out the noise of culture, lies of the Enemy and the Sirens of desire. We find an increasing love of the light and hatred of the darkness. What is true becomes of higher value than what is expedient. We are willing to take the risk and accept the persecution that comes with holding it firmly. Christ in us produces humility and a softness of heart where a correction may be received. In the book of John, Jesus said: "everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice." The Good Shephard guides us and shapes the clay until his work is complete; until our ideology is sound.

About the author

I am a Christian, husband, father of two daughters, an owner of ISC, lead architect of MapDotNet, armchair apologist and philosopher, writer of hand-crafted electronic music, and a kid around anything that flies (rockets, planes, copters, boomerangs, hot air baloons, lawn furniture)

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