Thursday, May 30, 2013

Summer Series - Starting Principles

I’m going to attempt another series. It’s summer which is usually slow blogging time and this will require a little more research than usual so it might unfold slowly. It’s not so much about religion as it is “truth discovery”. Before I introduce it, I want to lay down some ground rules for myself. You can police me as you like and keep me honest.

These are some key philosophical points I discovered after asking the questions of how do we know what we know and why do we think the way we think.

Principle of Charity

 This is generally accepted among philosophers and was employed widely by politicians a few decades ago. Since the advent of talk radio and then 24-hour news channels it is less well known. The idea is, unless you have very good reasons, assume whomever you are listening to is not crazy. At least on the first run through, give their idea as much credibility as you can stand. Even if you strongly disagree with the person do not immediately jump to the conclusion that they are evil or insane for taking their position.


David Hume said, “A weaker evidence can never destroy a stronger.” Makes sense, but as Hume found, his own advice was difficult to follow. We all complain about the constantly changing “results of the latest study.” It would be great if “latest” was equal to “stronger” and it often is, but not always. Hume was the ultimate skeptic and said, philosophically speaking, we can’t prove anything. It’s too difficult to live like that but we should always keep in mind that our senses can fool us, we might learn something tomorrow that changes what we know today, that most everyone we know knows something we don’t, and we don’t have it all figured out.


This is a major part of modern thinking that quickly fell into our background knowledge because it is so obvious. But it took some of the great minds of the 20th century to formulate it rigorously. It is attributed to Karl Popper. He changed common sense thinking from truth being based on proof to saying that a theory is scientific if we know what would disprove it. Nothing can be completely proven. We can only increase our certainty until it is considered as a proven fact. For something to be science you must be able to design an experiment that will give you data that will lead to more or less certainty about it. If you can’t do that, it’s just an idea.

Another way to look at this is to consider your favorite difficult Uncle or somebody in your circle of friends who can’t be argued with. Most of us know someone who has a pet theory or is constantly coming up with new ones and never seems to listen to reason. No matter what evidence you present they have a way of deflecting it. If your evidence is strong, they will fall back on a theory of how that evidence was constructed to cover-up the actual truth. How they know that truth is a mystery.


If you are uncomfortable with these principles, to borrow from Steve Novella, if you don’t like science, which part is it you don’t like? If you live in a country with a constitution, which is most of the world, do you not like the idea of “innocent until proven guilty?” There is unevenness in how that is enforced, but it is at its core a scientific principle. Because of scientific thinking, people can no longer accuse you of witchcraft and burn you at the stake, they have to have evidence and they have to prove their case.

Science led to principles that ended slavery and improved civil rights. Science is the fairest system. It allows to you sell a book that claims you can change the weather with your mind, you just can’t claim it is scientifically proven. It allows you to teach your children that the earth is 10,000 years old, it just asks you not to call it science or to teach it in a science class or call it an alternative scientific theory. It allows you say whatever you want and if you can provide evidence it will accept it as truth.

A Handy reference

Carl Sagan developed some strategies for sniffing out good science and put them in his book The Demon Haunted World. Michael Shermer worked some of those into a shorter list. He calls it the “Baloney Detection Kit." I will be employing this list throughout the series as well.

1 comment:

  1. Ok, John. I'm a little behind in this series. I'm just coming on-board right now, in fact. I'm liking the ground rules!