I was watching “8, the Mormon Proposition” the other day, (aside, yes, it is enough to make you briefly considering murdering anyone in garments, why do you ask?) and among many other things, it occurred to me that it was a good example of the epistemic split that we encounter in everyday life in the modern U.S. What is that?
There is a point in the show where the editors are bouncing back and forth between quotes from Gayle “oh my god what a hateful and horrible person” Ruzicka and Paul “oops I accidentally outted myself on OneUtah” Mero where it becomes obvious that the only supporting “evidence” that either of them has for their anti-gay vitriol can be boiled down to a single point: God said. There is a temptation to set these types of arguments aside and attempt to make a reasoned appeal when debating such matters. It almost inevitably ends in failure. The problem is not that the “conservative” side sticks to a certain point, or lists talking points, or that the “liberal” side makes an emotional argument or worships Al Gore, or any of the other reasons people so often give for their opponents reasoning. The problem is that there is an epistemic divide between the groups in many cases.
Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that deals with knowledge. Epistemology is concerned with how we gain knowledge, what counts as knowledge, how we might prove that it is, in fact, knowledge, and when we should doubt what we once considered knowledge. At one point, the earth was center of the universe, then the sun. Now the center of the universe is so far removed from the locus of our world that it boggles the mind. Yet each of these “facts” was once considered to be a fact, and part of the accumulation of human knowledge. Just like the fact that Thor swung his hammer, Venus caused mortals to fall in love and Lao-tzu rode the skies like a dragon. Until they no longer did. How exactly do these facts change to myths or errors while new facts rise to take their place?
I want to talk about two separate concepts that come up in epistemology, and why they should worry us about politics in America: the Raft and Falsification.
First a little philosophy of science and Karl Popper. In the philosophy of science especially, but also broadly influential in epistemology, it is often argued that while we may not be able to define truth, there are key parts to something that is true, and that if we know these parts we can at least recognize it when we see it. It might be helpful to think of this as similar to familial resemblance. I can’t set down a definition of traits that explain who is related to me, but I can point out certain features that pop up in my family, and then when you see someone with my eyes, cheekbones, gait, and skin tone, you might be onto something.
So what do we look for in an idea to know that it might be a member of the family of truth? Four things stand out. First, truth tends to match our experiences. It fits the facts. The fact that I see garbage trucks in the neighborhood most mondays, the fact that if I put out my garbage can sunday nights they are empty monday evenings, and the fact that the sanitation department tells me my garbage pickup is monday all seem to support the theory that garbage pickup is, in fact, monday.
Second, the truth tends to be internally consistent. If part of my Greater Garbage Pickup (GGP) theory claims that recycling is also picked up on mondays, and I later notice a recycling truck on monday as well as a garbage truck, and I also find out that the sanitation department likes to perform both activities on the same day for the same area, the theory and other internal facts match up.
Third, the truth tends to be externally consistent as well. The fact that the physical sciences explain the internal combustion engine which powers the trucks which come for the garbage is not proof that garbage day is monday, but if if internal combustion engines where in fact impossible, I might have serious doubts about my garbage truck theories.
Fourth, the truth tends to be useful. It enables predictions, and gives us new options to act successfully. If my GGP theory predicts that as a government service sanitation will not happen on certain holidays, and that proves true, I have demonstrated a useful prediction of the theory that partially confirms that theory.
So where is Falsification? Falsification or falsifiability actually comes in all through out the system. If my experiences fail to match the theory something must be adjusted, if the theory is not internally or externally consistent, either my theory or the external theory must be made to match up. Or even jettisoned altogether. If predictions fail to be born out by the future, the theory is falsified and must be adjusted.
One of the bits of fallout from falsifiability is the idea that a theory must be falsifiable, at least in concept, in order to make sense. One of the criticisms against modern religion is that god is no longer a falsifiable concept. Once upon a time god (or gods usually) lived on some distant mountain. Until people got to the top, and found the gods had moved into the clouds. Until we could get above them, and the gods moved to live on the far side of the moon (maybe with a lost tribe) until we got there. God has moved locations, changed what he does, shifted, mutated, and faded, until today god is an idea some transient that we can’t sense, detect, find, or measure him in any way. Yet people are still able to hear exactly what he wants them to tell you to do.
The god of most religions today fails all four points of identifying truth. God fails to fit the observed facts, is not internally consistent, doesn’t match up with any of the foundational knowledge we have, and is not useful to make predictions or reason forward. Further, in order to (in their minds at least) keep god from being disproven, god has been so far removed from the real world that literally nothing can be done to disprove him. God, in most religions, is a useless concept.
Except for supporting our own prejudices. And here we return to the split.
Gayle “of the horrible disposition and dower continence” Ruzika is quoted in the film stating that being gay can’t be something you are born to, but must be a choice. Why? Because “God says being gay is wrong, and God wouldn’t make you something that is wrong and then expect you to be right.” Ignore that god making people wrong and then expecting them to be right anyway seems to be the entire plot of the bible. Instead, notice that the reasoning is something you simple can’t argue with. Not because it is right, but because there is an epistemic claim in the background that remains unspoken. “God is the source of all knowledge, and I speak for God.”
How do we know that god says that being gay is bad? Because I said so! And what about the science that says people are born gay? It is wrong, because it goes against what god says. And the external facts? Same. OK, how about those who say god made them gay and so it must be alright? They are wrong, god didn’t say that. How do we know? Because god wouldn’t say that, because being gay is wrong. Who says? Oh, yeah…
The problem is that there is the method by which almost all knowledge in the modern world has been reached, and the method people like Gayle and Paul are using, and never the twain shall meet. But we can see the results of the thinking.
Which brings us to the Raft. We might, if we are philosophically minded, be worried about this concept of internal consistency. If we need internal consistency, yet we know some things are going to be wrong, don’t we have a problem?
Ernest Sosa suggested that the metaphor for knowledge might be best captured by the image of a ship at sea that we are trying to keep afloat. Each plank is an individual bit of knowledge in our ship. We know that some planks are simply wrong, and won’t help us stay afloat. They are leaking, and frankly, are just concepts that no longer hold water. However being at sea, we can’t simply abandon the entire collection of conceptions and start over. Instead we must begin, plank by plank, replacing those that fail to keep the ship afloat and keeping those that work until the craft is sea worthy.
The trouble is that one large part of the population has insisted on holding to the plank labeled “god” even though it is unable to fit with any of the planks that currently keep the water out. The god plank doesn’t fit with the evolution plank, the geology plank, the biology plank, the astronomy plank, the medicine plank, the ethics plank, the rights plank…
And though there is a great deal of effort by some people to reshape and reuse the god plank, the majority of those who are hanging on to it are not interested in reshaping it, but prefer to hang on to it, even as the rest of their raft has fallen away. They want to reshape all of the rest of the craft to fit this single plank, which offers us not a single reason to keep it, let alone build the world around it. Which is where we find Gayle, and Paul, and their epistemic cousins. Floating on a single plank of faith while the rest of the world works to maintain a ship.
Arguing with those who cling to this plank of faith is often impossible simply because the basis of knowledge is not shared. And the faith need not be in god. Look for example at the recent “disproof” of global warming. The paper linked to in an earlier OneUtah discussion as proof that CO2 is not a greenhouse gas. In fact, it claims that no gas has a thermal insulation effect. None. That such a claim is disproven by all of atmospheric science, the observable temperatures on the moon, earth, mars, venus… hell every observed body in space, is simply not a relevant fact. Not if you already know that climate change is wrong. The rising temperatures, rising sea levels, weather changes, disappearing species, these are not “facts” but more things to make fun of. That climate change is internally coherent, matches observations, matches the laws of physics, and has given us predictions that continue to be born out is not important. It just isn’t so, because a different epistemology, one that ignores reality and makes up its own facts as it goes, is in action for many people.
As the republican primaries continue, and the mass of candidates hold to this faith based reality, we hear that climate change isn’t real (as Perry scrubs the record of all science in Texas for example) evolution is just a bad theory for egghead professors, and cutting taxes for people who have more money than they could ever spend will somehow create jobs. Because for the typical republican primary voter, facts are whatever they wish them to be. And unless we find a way to teach a viable epistemology to the (invented) values voter, the divide between reality and rightwing fantasy land will continue.
And we may yet all drown because of it.