Sunday, May 14, 2017

Ubi Dubium... | The Way to the Truth




I self-identify as a skeptic, and now and then fall short of the ideal — we all do — but like better and certainly more accomplished skeptics, I believe that, yes, Agent Mulder, the truth is out there…


…But also that the best way to the truth is through skilled, careful reasoning and systematically gathered evidence.


Skeptics tend to value logic and evidence as ways of knowing the natural and social worlds. Without claiming that skeptics “own” logical thinking, I can confidently say that some mix of solid reasoning and sound evaluation have been very reliable throughout human history, in any profession involving professional competence, whether a good mechanic, police detective, soldier, electrical engineer, landscaper, lab technician or astrophysicist.


It’s all a matter of using effective knowledge that one can reliably use in situations in the real world — without the universe thumbing its nose and saying “Nope, that won’t even get onto the airfield.”


It could even be said that there is a set of principles, ideas and values that while not identical with modern skepticism and its use of critical thinking skills underlies both, as with the process of science.


Let me get something straight: skepticism is a set of methods, not a doctrine, belief nor a system of belief advocating any particular position on the nature of reality, so it can’t possibly be true or false, formally valid or invalid either. It is not the sort of thing that can be those.


It’s a method of finding out what’s true or false, or likely to be, and of reliably showing it to be when there’s enough information to come to a reasonable conclusion.


When skeptics are generally agreed that such-and-such a claim is false, likely to be false, or at least highly suspect, it’s because a commonly shared set of methods was used to reach that conclusion, not a taboo about or disinterest in the paranormal or the unconventional.


Conclusions are provisional — good skeptics are willing to change their minds upon the satisfaction of a level of proof appropriate to the claim.


Is there any other, at least as reliable, even superior way of knowing the truth besides reason and empirical methods? If there are any, I don’t know of them, and I don’t know of anyone else who does and has been able to show it convincingly.


With no universally agreed-upon way to tell the true from the false, short of using other forms of evidence to corroborate them, some of claims based on these may occasionally turn out to be true or partly true as a lucky guess. But most have shown themselves highly unreliable as effective techniques despite their frequency of use by many cultures. If you put out enough random claims, some of them are bound to come true by chance alone, via the Law of Large numbers.


The problem is that most claims to knowledge based on unproven means of gaining input from esoteric sources (themselves unproven or even unprovable to exist) are unreliable, often true by chance alone, and sometimes even fraudulent, so care must be taken in evaluating them.


But care must be taken with any extraordinary claim to knowledge no matter the source and set of methods, any claim inconsistent with a well-supported body of established findings. And the more inconsistent the claim, the better and more copious the evidence needed to support it.


After all, claiming that I’ve read a book by a certain author is trivial when both book and author are well-known to exist and I can intelligently discuss the contents of the book with another, but to claim I had a twenty-foot tall eight-limbed radiation breathing alien dinosaur in my bedroom closet would be a claim requiring an enormous burden of proof on my part, since there is no proven knowledge that such beings exist, that any are on Earth if they do, much less the fact that the known dimensions of my closet are too small to contain such a being, and the fact that I show no signs of radiation exposure despite my claimed proximity to the alien.


And no ad hoc hypotheses would or should be permitted. Every link in my claim must hold and be capable of disproof if it is to be acceptable — no excuses!


At the very least, my obstinately persisting in that claim despite disproof would and rightly should raise questions of my honesty or my sanity, or perhaps what sort of joke I’m attempting to play and what the punchline is.


It would be interesting if there really were superior ways to the truth, but I know of none which currently exist. I suspect that any existing at a future date will most likely be a evolution, vastly improved, of current scientific methodology or something else like it and serving the same function, only better.


That, I think, may be something to look forward to, if not in my lifetime, then the lifetimes of those yet to come. Good or bad, we are living in interesting times indeed.

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