& Thales' Press: How Do You Know That? (or A Little Ambiguity on a Wednesday Afternoon)

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

How Do You Know That? (or A Little Ambiguity on a Wednesday Afternoon)

I'm a crappy friend, and here's why.  When asked a question that a friend of mine deemed important, I turned his questions back to him in the form of additional questions.  Maybe I'm uncomfortable with familiar certitude, or else I'm just content to be a gad fly.

Maybe I'm too much of a coward to give a straight answer.  You can judge for yourself after you read the rest of this post. (You will, won't you?)

To set the context, here's the note (posted with permission).

"Hi Rob,

So, I read this [link from Wikipedia to my daughter] yesterday and asked if she believed it:

Joseph Smith Jr. said that when he was seventeen years of age an angel of God, named Moroni, appeared to him,[10] and said that a collection of ancient writings, engraved on golden plates by ancient prophets, was buried in a nearby hill in Wayne County, New York. The writings described a people whom God had led from Jerusalem to the Western Hemisphere 600 years before Jesus' birth. According to the narrative, Moroni was the last prophet among these people and had buried the record, which God had promised to bring forth in the latter days. Smith stated that he was instructed by Moroni to meet at the hill annually each September 22 to receive further instructions and that four years after the initial visit, in 1827, he was allowed to take the plates and was directed to translate them into English.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_of_Mormon

She said 'no,' so I asked her why she believed a man lived in the belly of a fish for three days and the story of an ark and a talking donkey, etc., but she didn't believe this story.  She thought for a second and said, 'because you didn't teach that to me' (which is a more honest answer than when I ask her why her room isn't clean).  So I asked her if we were sharing the story of Jesus with a non-believer or even someone in a country that was not familiar with the Bible what would make them believe one set of stories and not the other.  She didn't have an answer and I'm not sure I do either.

This has always been one of my sticking points (noted in the article):

For some followers of the Latter Day Saint movement, unresolved issues of the book's historical authenticity and the lack of conclusive archaeological evidence have led them to adopt a compromise position that the Book of Mormon may be the creation of Smith, but that it was nevertheless created through divine inspiration.[36] The position of most members of the Latter Day Saint movement and the official position of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) is that the book is an actual and accurate historical record.

Thus, I'm asking if you have any thoughts on this."

No one is really questioning the Mormon church here.  My friend's question is related to his own unresolved issues, not those of you who wear the special undergarments.

My crappy response?  Here it is...

"First of all, I think you need to realize that you’re asking your daughter to do something very dangerous.  In the end, she may not believe what you believe.  Can you handle that, knowing that you started her on that road of inquiry and questioning?

Second, what do you hope to achieve by asking your daughter to take on this line of questioning?  Do you want her to have a more secure rationale of the stories she believes in by faith in you (which she more or less admitted to, and with honesty, as you point out)?  Or do you want your daughter to learn to live life on more courageous and rational terms; i.e., not driven by others’ forcible dictates or emotional manipulations against her own interests, or not driven by her own casual acceptance of poor thinking (which, in our own way, we all suffer from)?

Finally, I’m not going to answer your question directly. I’m going to turn the questions back on you. How do you establish that any belief is worthy of protracted attention and possibly worthy of bringing others to a similar level of attention? It seems to me that before you give your daughter some guidance in this regard, you ought to have given some measure of consideration to the following.

  1. What are the criteria that you use to judge the veracity of a claim?
  2. How do you determine that a belief should be significant to you?
  3. How do you determine that a belief should be significant to others?
  4. How do you determine that you have an obligation to communicate to others about it?
  5. How do you determine that your beliefs are worthy enough to impose some obligation on others?

I hope you can live with some ambiguity on a Wednesday afternoon. :)

Best regards,
Rob"

I don't think I exactly gave a straight, supportive answer.

The romantic ideal I possess of a stalwart friend is one who would give reassuring answers.  Clear answers.  None of that ambiguous, oblique stuff that makes you lie awake at night staring at the ceiling.  Like I said, I'm a crappy friend.

So while I might want to be a good friend and fall short, above all I want to be an honest friend when it matters.  (Yeah, I qualify that.  I'll leave it up to you to ponder when a little dishonesty might be helpful.)  Looking back on it, I have to say that one of the most important lessons I gained from engineering school was to realize I have the moral authority to ask: "How do you know that?"

And so I ask, dear reader, how do YOU know that?

In the context of this thread, I don't care if you believe in Joseph Smith and the story of Maroni.  For that matter, I don't care if you believe in Scientology, Buddha, Jesus, or Mohammed. Global warming or not, evolution or special creation, secret societies that malevolently run the planet or that government is just always inept. I don't care.

I don't care if you believe in a gold standard, a bimetallic standard, or a fiat currency.

I don't care if you believe that you should never get involved in a land war in Asia or that you should never go in against a Sicilian when death in on the line.

I. Don't. Care.

What I do care about is this: If we believe that our beliefs are worthy enough to affect others, I want to know - how do we know that?  Let's start right there.

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12 Comments:

At May 1, 2012 at 10:39 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know my beliefs are worthy enough to affect others when I know they are worthy enough to first affect me to be a more loving person. I know I am being a more loving person when I observe how people respond to me ... more and specifically, I know my beliefs are worthy enough to affect others when I act upon them and live by them, and then others ask, for example, "How did you do that?" or "Why are you so generous?" or "They really hurt you, didn't you want to make them pay?" ... in fact, I can't think of a better reason to share your beliefs than if one's own daughter asks her father, "Why do you believe what you do?" ... because she is asking, and trying to understand the man in her life she admires most and where he gets his own personal value.

There will always be unasnwered questions in our belief systems. Attempting to solve them all before sharing the positive results we experience from them is a tragedy.

What it appears from this post is that you aren't really being a bad friend, but rather you are instead projecting your own personal belief questions back outward.

My starting point back to you is what made you think your reply was worthy enough to send and post in the first place? ... weren't you imposing a belief system of 'analyze everything first before believing anything' ... why?

 
At May 1, 2012 at 12:21 PM , Blogger Robert D. Brown III said...

Thanks, Anonymous (or shall I refer to you as Anony?). I appreciate your comments.

First of all, I think you're quite right in your approach to thinking about the effects of your belief system, which seems to be: "If my beliefs appear to cultivate the best in myself and others, then I ought to share those with others so that they may, likewise, cultivate the best in themselves and others." I wish more people actually thought like that.

There are, however, some risks associated with that line of thought. First, you may be so convinced that because your beliefs are helpful and worth sharing that they are the only thing anyone needs to hear from you; thus, you resort to using a bullhorn (or a metaphorical equivalent) or bullying to get your message across. In this case, I think you would recognize that you become self-defeating, no longer cultivating the best in yourself and others. Your behavior becomes obnoxious, maybe manipulative or forceful (in the extreme case), and diverts attention from other worthy issues.

Second, most people form systems of beliefs that are composed of a number of ideas that they hold in some kind of union. They also conduct a kind of confirmation process that usually isn't systematic or controls for biases very well (I highly recommend reading Mistakes Were Made, But Not By Me; and Thinking, Fast and Slow). One example of this confirmation process is "cherry picking" and "Texas sharpshooter fallacy" in which people choose the data that confirms their beliefs and ignore the data that would disconfirm their beliefs. The process of biased selection is used to confirm the whole of beliefs as a conjunction instead of realizing that some of the subset beliefs can be easily disentangled from others. For example, beliefs about how we ought to behave aren't always necessarily required by the assumptions people have about why they ought to behave a certain way. I don't think we ought to kill people at will. I can think of reasons why that is a good belief to maintain (e.g., what's to keep others from killing me?) that aren't necessarily related to some of the reasons other people use to justify the same belief (e.g., God will send you to hell for murder.) The point is, in many ethical belief systems, the prescriptions can often be separated from the why. Unfortunately, people don't often see that. And when they build a confirmation bias for their whole belief system, they assume that all the elements are simultaneously true. This is where the risk comes in for not being vigilant in one's effort to relentlessly test the basis of all our beliefs, regardless of the value we experience as a result of part of them: if our confirmation bias leads us to believe that every assumption in our belief system is true, when in fact some of them are false, asserting that false belief to others as manifestly true may entail other behaviors that are ultimately destructive. You are correct when you say that we can't solve all our unanswered questions. There will always be an infinite regress of assumptions. But that doesn't alleviate us from the moral responsibility, either, of striving for clarity and coherence in what we advocate. I'm not at all saying we shouldn't share our belief systems. I'm saying we shouldn't assume our beliefs systems are incontrovertibly true in totality because we discover some measure of value in parts of them.

 
At May 1, 2012 at 12:21 PM , Blogger Robert D. Brown III said...

(Continued)

Anony said: "What it appears from this post is that you aren't really being a bad friend, but rather you are instead projecting your own personal belief questions back outward."

Sure, I don't disagree. But I'm also asking people to stop and think before they too easily assume, as I stated in the last paragraph, that just because they find value in part of a system of belief that they don't assume all of their belief system is true.

Anony asked: "My starting point back to you is what made you think your reply was worthy enough to send and post in the first place?"

Because I hope to cultivate the best in myself and others.

Anony asked: "… weren't you imposing a belief system of 'analyze everything first before believing anything' ... why?"

No, I wasn't imposing anything. "Imposing" is when I invite you over to dinner, lock you in my basement with chains to the wall, then force you to listen to me play "A Night at the Opera" on my tuba. Or "imposing" is when I force you at sword point to sign a statement of faith, or limit your ability to engage freely in other transactions with other people, or keep you captive in some way to me. Imposing implies asymmetric leverage of will. In this case, you had the opportunity to read what I said and move or engage me in dialog. My choice to post was not conditional on any response from you, and your response was not required by force or coercion from me.

 
At May 1, 2012 at 3:31 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for your reply, and clarification on the word "impose". It was a poor choice of my wording.

I didn't realize that when you asked, "How do you determine that your beliefs are worthy enough to impose some obligation on others?", that your friend was considering forcing his daughter at sword-point or chaining her to the wall to accept his beliefs...

You also wrote, "I'm not at all saying we shouldn't share our belief systems. I'm saying we shouldn't assume our beliefs systems are incontrovertibly true in totality because we discover some measure of value in parts of them."

... oh, ok. I thought you were just asking how do we know if any of our beliefs that we hold are worthy of being shared. ... I fully agree that you should keep considering that part of your logic might be flawed.

I would also add that we shouldn't assume our beliefs systems are incontrovertibly false in totality because we discover some measure of mystery, either.

 
At May 1, 2012 at 4:35 PM , Blogger Robert D. Brown III said...

OK, when I said, "How do you determine that your beliefs are worthy enough to impose some obligation on others?" I was, of course, not saying that my friend was considering forcing his daughter at sword-point or chaining her to the wall to accept his beliefs…

My point was to show that people's beliefs go through a progression related to their importance and how they are applied to others (see bullet points 1-5 in the original post). If my friend's daughter is going to ask how she knows something is true, she also needs to start asking herself how far she is willing to push with those beliefs and why. If she comes to the conclusion that her beliefs are worth asserting on others, I believe she, as well as anyone else, has a moral obligation to clearly explain why that is the case in a logically consistent way. This is part of being a mature, considerate adult.

And just to make sure we are communicating, I also did not say that beliefs should never be imposed on others. For example, as I pointed out earlier, I don't believe that people ought to be allowed to take the life of anyone else for arbitrary reasons. I'm quite willing to use force (the point of a gun or sword) to insure that others who do take life arbitrarily don't continue doing so. Laws imposed by the state are de facto force. Some laws have the benefit of being good regardless of this de facto force. Again, the point was not to say that beliefs should never be imposed. It was that beliefs, if they are imposed, should carry a rationale that is open to scrutiny. Preferably, the person making the claim for imposing a belief on others should recognize that they carry the burden of proof. Many people start from the assumption that their assumptions are automatically true, because why would they believe something that is false? Unfortunately, the state of our minds is such that we frequently star from both untested and false assumptions.

Anony said, "I would also add that we shouldn't assume our beliefs systems are incontrovertibly false in totality because we discover some measure of mystery, either."

Fine enough. Believe what you will. But if you're willing to impose on someone with a belief that cannot be sufficiently backed up, you need to be prepared to pay the consequences when the objects of your imposition counter-impose on you.

 
At May 2, 2012 at 10:13 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

...given that there will always be unanswered questions, we should both probably be prepared for the impending imposing opposition.

I do think I can empathize with your line of reasoning. I think it points to belief "systems" or religious frameworks more than specific beliefs. For example, we do seem to all understand killing is wrong. However, the "in totality" framework that leads us to these types of conclusions seems to vary quite a bit. We would all do well to keep an open mind about our belief systems, and that is one belief I want to share. I would also agree for the need for "relentless" analysis and welcomed opposing arguments.

(I do also try to keep in mind most people don't choose analytics as a career, and might not be quite as relentless as a few of us in their impositions ... much to our frustration.)

I also understand the fallacy of the cherry picking argument. The biggest framework that is guilty of this is the one called "Christianity", and it's myriad of selective-verse-quoting, document-proving, sharp-shooters (ie. LDS, Catholics, Protestants and their 1000+ brands) ... it doesn't take much analysis to get frustrated in their approaches and find the flaws.

Meanwhile, may you dream in electron microscopes and keep up w/ your Hadron Collider news feed... and please, put the Tuba down.

 
At May 2, 2012 at 12:45 PM , Blogger Robert D. Brown III said...

Anony said: "I think it points to belief 'systems' or religious frameworks more than specific beliefs."

OK, but please understand that I'm not addressing beliefs held by religious institutions or even popularly held religious beliefs. I'm addressing all untested beliefs and belief systems whether they are based in religion, economics, politics, or business, etc.

Anyway, for the sake of all that is beautiful and right in the world, I will put down the tuba. :)

 
At May 2, 2012 at 12:47 PM , Blogger Robert D. Brown III said...

I just saw this this morning:

http://www.someecards.com/usercards/viewcard/MjAxMi1jNmZhMTc5YjE3ZjlkNDRl

 
At May 25, 2012 at 1:27 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

... and I just saw this:

“When everything gets answered,
it’s fake. The mystery is the truth.” -Sean Penn

 
At May 25, 2012 at 1:38 PM , Blogger Robert D. Brown III said...

I wonder how Sean Penn knows that.

 
At May 25, 2012 at 1:58 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

He was probably encouraged by a good friend to never stop asking the hard questions.

 
At May 25, 2012 at 2:14 PM , Blogger Robert D. Brown III said...

Never stop asking the hard questions.

 

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