The methodology of trust

Our lives revolve around trust. We trust countless things every day to be as we think they are. When you get in a car, you trust that the brakes are not going to fail, the engine is not going to set fire, and you even trust the countless other drivers on the road to not smash into your car. When you get medical care, you trust that the doctor knows what he is talking about. When you read books, you trust that the author has done a significant amount of study on whatever topic he is writing about. Heck, even when you sit on a chair, you have subconscious trust that it will not break under you.

Is this wise? Might we exercise caution when dealing with the methodology of trust? I think it would benefit us all to understand where “trust” is appropriate, and where it is not.

First, let’s get some kind of a definition out there for what “trust” means: a belief that something is true without a full, personal, skeptical analysis. This applies from our beliefs about the integrity of chairs, to the integrity of the plumber who comes by to fix some pipes. We obviously don’t do a thorough stress test of every bit of furniture before we sit down on it. Nor do we do a full background check and lie-detector test for the plumber. That would be impractical. How tedious and annoying would our lives be if we had to doubt every little bit of information that we received about everything?

However, this casual, useful “belief” should not be mimicked in intellectual matters. When we are developing our worldview and dealing with beliefs that are more than just “practical”, the caution level should shoot through the roof. It is a tragic mistake to carry over the methodology of trust into the fundamental justification for the worldview that you hold. Whether or not a chair is sound is a little bit less important than whether or not a god exists. While the methodology of trust works most of the time (most chairs will not break; most plumbers will not assassinate you), we have opened up the door to permanent uncertainty and imprecision if our fundamental beliefs might be right only most of the time. We should seek absolute precision when searching for the basis of our worldview.

To illustrate this point, let’s fully examine what is wrong with philosophic “trust”. In what situations could it misguide us? Might “trust” be as justifiable a methodology as “faith“? Remember: we are seeking absolute certainty at the bottom of our beliefs. Let’s take a couple examples:

Example 1: The Crusades. You believe that they happened, and so do I.  A bunch of religious people around a millennia ago decided to convert non-believers by killing them. That’s the general overview. Why do we believe they happened? We might respond with a few reasons:

1. I read it in a history book.
2. My professor told me about it.
3. Experts have done research, and they have decided that they happened based on such-and-such evidence.
3.5 And those experts wrote books, which I/my professor read and deemed credible.

I would say that our reasons for belief in the Crusades can generally boil down to these reasons. We read something; someone told us something; someone with credentials believes something. After all, I certainly do not have personal experience being a Crusader, nor have I dug up and looked at all the evidence which suggests that they happened. In fact, I don’t think I have met anybody who has actually handled any related evidence first-person, and yet, all of the people with whom I have interacted share this belief with me. Is that odd? Might there be weak links in this chain? We’ll answer this question later.

Example 2: Doctors. When you get sick, who better to talk to than a doctor? While I am not the biggest fan of institutionalized medicine, if something is seriously wrong, I seek expert advice. Why? Perhaps there are reasons like this:

1. I have been helped by doctors before.
2. Doctors are experts in their field.
3. If doctors didn’t help people, there wouldn’t be so many of them in practice.

Again, I think most reasons for seeing the doctor can be roughly be categorized into these three beliefs. Now, I don’t personally have a significant medical background. It could actually be the case that the doctors tell me absolute gibberish about body parts that don’t even exist, and I wouldn’t know. I have neither been a doctor, nor have I looked at almost any medical literature, which I assume (purely guesswork) is a reliable source of knowledge about medical issues. Now that we have those two examples, let’s search for logical loopholes: where might certainty be misplaced?

A. We read something. (about the Crusades, something medical, etc.)

Now, there is an obvious answer to why you shouldn’t have certainty about the things that you read: it might be wrong. No shocker. Of course, it gets a little more in depth than that.

About those Crusades. When we talk about “reading something” in this context, we are talking about “reading something written by somebody else“.  Just by adding that little clause, our red flags should be shooting up already. Some questions that you better have an answer to if you seek certainty (prepare for lengthy, hyperbolic skepticism):

-Who is this author? 

What are the author’s intentions? If we are dealing with a disingenuous writer who just seeks cheap sources of revenue, it might be wise to doubt the integrity of the writing. But even if we are dealing with a honest person, but the author is a nincompoop, “trust” might be ill-advised. How can you know the intentions of an author whom you’ve likely not met, and will likely never meet, nor know anyone who has personally ever met him? Even if it were the case that you met the author personally, how could you know whether or not he was integritous. Could this person just be a charming speaker/writer who has ill intentions and does not care about the accuracy of his work? How could you know?

What is the author’s background in the subject matter? How much should you trust each sentence written by a professor versus a non-professor? If the author is a professor, how important is the school at which he teaches? How important are the economic incentives he faces while teaching at this school? If his requirement for a fat paycheck and tenure is to crank out as many books as possible, does that give you cause for doubt? Was he a good student while studying to become an expert, or did he just have family connections in school? What about a non-professor author? How many hours of research should you expect from an author of a history book who is not an accredited “expert” in the field? What if he is ridiculed by the professional “History” establishment? What if the same ridiculed author has written this book under a pseudonym? Would that affect the trust you put in his writing? How could you know such a thing?

But really, what does “background” in a field entail? What kind of education are we talking about? Does someone with “background” require actual hands-on, digging-up-artifacts experience, or should we trust the historian who has never set foot outside a university campus? Does “background” just mean the author has read a lot of words written by other people? Well, who are those other people? Shouldn’t we apply all these questions to them, too? Does creative analysis to historical “facts” count as “background”? How do all of these questions relate to the individual claims made by the author?

Does he have a religious background or bias? If so, how much? Would the frequency of his church-attendance affect how much trust you put in his work? What if he was in church every day for the past 35 years? Might that affect his work on the Crusades? What if the author is staunchly anti-religious, and has written books about how religion is the cause of the worlds’ evils? Would that affect how you read the book? What if this person receives large amounts of money from religious/anti-religious organizations? Should you trust their research? How could you know this information?

Phew. You get the idea. There are innumerable other questions that one could ask that have to deal with just the mere authorship of writing. The important part: if you do not know the answer to any one of these questions, you have reason to doubt. At the very, very least, you can not have certainty.

These questions also apply to another common reason for belief: my professor/teacher told me so. I won’t go through another flurry of skeptical questioning for time’s sake, but it is absolutely crucial to understand that questions that have to deal with economics, politics, human behavior, history, philosophy, and language are all extremely relevant to our trust in a professor. There are a staggering number of presuppositions that we take for granted when believing what somebody says.

This even applies to almighty scientific claims. I believe X to be true because it is scientific. This line of reasoning is so pervasive and deceptive, that I will write a whole post about it in the near future. Suffice to say, your belief in scientific claims almost certainly do not have to do with your personal experimental testing of any given claim, but your trust in what some people you’ve never met say. Mere uttered words are the justification for many a “scientific” belief.

I would like to reduce the methodology of trust into less deceptive terms. To be frank, when we hold a belief that X is true, and it is based on “trust”, our reasons are usually reducible to the following:

1. Somebody told me that X is true.
2. I read words that said X is true.
3. Somebody else believes X is true.

When we phrase it clearly, it becomes obvious that we should be a little more skeptical of our beliefs which are not arrived at via a proper method. To rephrase “trust” in this way might not be completely clear. So, as they relate to the three sentences above:

1. Belief based on a professor/teacher/parent telling you X is true is a simple argument from authority. This is awfully similar to “faith”.
2. “Reading” is actually just looking at ink that is arranged in a certain way on a piece of paper. Ink-arrangement is not a reliable source of finding truth. This, too, (yes, even reading) when not coupled with an extremely skeptical rational analysis, looks a lot like “faith”.
3. When you say, “the experts” believe X is true, this is the most nefarious justification of them all. How uncertain must you be if you have removed yourself completely from an argument and simply believe based on the mere possession of a belief by another? Indeed, I know many a person that in the midst of losing an argument, will unequivocally defer to “the experts”. (For example, can something logically come from nothing? Why don’t you decide, and don’t take pastor Lawrence Krauss’s word for it) This is no more than faith.

Just because “the experts” on Islam have determined that Muhammad was a prophet sent by God, does not mean that he was. Just because the mainstream economic “experts” have declared that war is good for the economy, doesn’t mean that it is.

Bottom line: you should be absolutely sick and terrified of vagueness and imprecision. Do not make uncertainty the foundation for your beliefs. Relegate “trust” to the periphery parts of your life: chairs, cars, plumbers, and the like. Objective, necessary truth exists, and you can know it through the method of logical reasoning. Nothing should be more fundamental to your worldview than that.

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Three a week: Free will

Do we have free will? Three questions:

Question 1: What is free will?

It sounds obvious, but upon further inspection, this is a tough question. Can we make choices freely? Well, what is a “choice”, and what is “freely”? Perhaps we should say something like, “a choice is a decision between two possible outcomes.” But what about “freely”? How about, “when we make a choice, it is not compelled by the previous state of events”. That sounds free. That leads to the next question:

Question 2: Is there a logical possibility of free will?

Why wouldn’t there be, you ask? Think about it, when you make a decision, you have a reasoning process. You think to yourself, “if I choose X, Y will probably happen, and I value Y happening, so I will choose X.”, or vice-versa. It doesn’t matter. If this is true, when you are about to make a decision, if the inputs (reasoning process) were the exact same, would you make the exact same decision?

By virtue of you making a decision, you have necessarily gone through various step to reach your conclusion. If you were to go through those steps again, would you reach the same conclusion? If yes, where is the free will? You just sound like a computer program. Granted, you might be a complex being with all sorts of beliefs and values, but you seem to have a specific pattern of personality, right? If you get the exact, exact same inputs and reasons for a given situation, would you not predictable?

(It should also be mentioned that you don’t even seem to have control over your personality. You had all kind of external stimuli which shaped your behavior and personality that you absolutely did not control [your parents, your school, your country of origin, the culture into which you were born, etc]. How can it be that you did not control these influences, being a fundamental part of your reasoning process, and you still have a truly free will?)

Question 3: What would free will really look like?

By definition, it would seem like for any given situation, you would receive certain inputs, and you could somehow respond differently with the exact same thoughts and beliefs. Does free will just imply randomness? If you could think the same thing, and do something different, what kind of control is that? “You” certainly do not seem like you are in control of the situation. If you were, wouldn’t you necessarily, logically, act in a certain way, given “your” specific will?

Think about it this way: do events not always have causes? If so, what were the causes of those causes? Must you not have caused everything preceding your decision in order to be fully responsible for any given outcome?

Perhaps we are not bound by our personalities? Perhaps intentional capriciousness is the only possible outlet for free will? Then again, why did you choose to be capricious?

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The methodological error of “faith”

If you value finding truth, you should be concerned with the methodology of thinking. There are common pitfalls and fallacies which are easy to be deceived by, and, in order to properly avoid deception, you should be actively searching for them. One of the most common errors, if not the most common, is the methodological error of faith. This is a further explanation of what I touched on earlier.

To be clear, I am not attacking any specific beliefs, or conclusions, held by anyone of any stripe. This post is an explanation of why the methodology of faith is wrong. Any conclusions arrived at by an untrustworthy methodology should be immediately doubted, even if you feel very strongly that they are true. This means that your beliefs might be true (about Allah, Jesus, atheism, etc.), but if your method of reasoning is not sound, that is what takes precedence over any ultimate conclusion. With a proper method of reasoning, you can trust your conclusions, regardless of what they are; it is not the other way around.

You can arrive at truth by pinning statements up to a dartboard and throwing at dart at them. Just believe whichever one the dart lands on. It might be true. However, if you value finding truth which you are justified in believing, I wouldn’t trust this methodology, as it can lead to inaccurate beliefs too easily. We should be a bit more cautious.

OK, the definition that I am going to be using for “faith” is the following: belief with an absence of proper reasons to believe. Notice this definition uses the word “reasons”, not “evidence” or “proof”. This is important, and I will write later about why “evidence” and “proof” are usually silly words that do not carry the weight which people want them to carry. Also, notice the word “proper” reasons. This is where most people go awry.

-Some common fallacies-

For example, I could have the following “reasons” to believe that the Bible is infallible divine revelation:

A: The Bible is God’s word; therefore, it must be true.
B: My parents believe it is true, and they wouldn’t lie to me.
C: It has greatly influenced people’s lives for thousands of years, or, it has been believed by a huge amount of people throughout history; therefore, it must be true.
D: I have two feet; therefore, the Bible must be true.

All of these are reasons, but are they proper reasons? Let’s briefly look at them.

A: This is a classic case of circular reasoning, seen most often with religious people defending the accuracy of their holy book. The justification for the belief is found within the belief itself. This is logically (structurally) no different from claiming, “Betty is the most popular girl in in the world. I know this because she is the most popular girl in the world.” This is nothing more than an assertion. Granted, if it is truly the case that Betty is the most popular girl in the world (or that the Bible is infallible), your belief is accurate. However, given the reasons put forward for believing in Betty’s popularity, you are not justified in thinking this is true.

B: This is another unfortunately common mistake, especially in younger folks. This is very similar to the logical fallacy called an “argument from authority”. Person X believes proposition Y to be true, therefore proposition Y is true. This absolutely does not follow. Granted, you might trust person X, but that doesn’t make the logical mistake less deceptive. The accuracy of any given belief has no logical relation whatsoever to a possessor of that belief. Proposition Y is either true or false, regardless of who believes it to be so.

C: Don’t be deceived; this sounds like perhaps a somewhat-justified reason. It isn’t. The belief in question is the following: the Bible is infallible divine revelation. The reason given to belief has to do with a proposition’s influence on other people’s lives, or the popularity of that belief. This is a logical fallacy. Whether or not a belief is true has nothing to do with whether or not a lot of people hold that belief, or are influenced by it, similar to reason B. Extremely bad ideas have been influential and popular throughout history, from economics and science, to ethics and morality. Other people’s gullibility is no grand measure of accuracy.

D: The reason I add this to the list of reasons is to drive home the point of the necessity of proper reasons. This example is a non-sequitur; the belief does not follow at all from the reason. However, it still earns the title of a “reason”, if an extremely poor, unrelated one.

-The real methodology of faith-

So, specifically related to the mental procedure of “faith”, I will re-ask the question that I asked in this post:

“Do you make sense of something before you believe it, or do you believe something then try to make sense of it?”

This cuts to the core of faith. Does “sense” come first, or only after belief? Let’s say faith comes first. You must believe something, without proper reason, before you can make sense of anything. OK, let’s ask the next logical question: Then what should I believe?

Oh boy is this a tricky question. Let’s say a pastor answers you, “You should believe in Christianity first. Put your faith there, then use reason afterwards.” What would happen if you asked back, “But… why Christianity?”

How could a consistent person of faith answer you? What reasons could they give? Uh oh, could they give any reasons at all? Literally, any?

(Now, I am not saying that religions do not have various reasons to believe in them, but this stands in stark contrast to their espousal of faith. Reasons are secondary, right?)

If the pastor answers you with a reason, even if it is a good one, he has admitted an ultimate defeat of the methodology of faith. By saying to you, “Christianity has been the most influential religion of the past 2000 years, therefore…” or, “Jesus Christ was a true historical figure. We know this because of records in various places. The reliability of the Bible is sound because…”, the pastor has acknowledged the primacy of reasons over faith. Now, there’s nothing wrong with this, at all, except that “faith” is the foundation for virtually all religions around the world. The religious will simultaneously argue that you should have faith, while arguing that you should have faith in their religion for various reasons. This is hypocritical and confused.

-And furthermore-

Let’s briefly revisit the question, “Why Christianity?”

There is more to that question that meets the eye. What are the presuppositions behind that question? What are we really asking? Aren’t we actually asking the following (if some phrases are unspoken):

What are the reasons that I should believe in Christianity as opposed to other beliefs?”

The consistent practitioner of faith must respond,

“No reasons. Truly, categorically speaking, no reasons whatsoever.”

Now, let’s explore what a “not-reason” for belief looks like.

You must not arrogantly force arguments for religion to your standard of what is true or false. This shows your devotion to God and your lack of troublesome pride. You must not try to “make sense” of “reasons” to believe; you must literally believe in the face of the purest absence of reasons. All of the following illustrate such a methodology (Not pejoratively. Don’t take offense. I am just adding varying words to the structure of this argument.):

A: I believe that Zeus is God for no reason.
B: I believe horses control the weather because I am humble enough to not use my reason.
C: I believe chocolate is my savior because I think noon is in the middle of the day.
D: I believe Islam is correct even though every rational argument suggests otherwise.
E: I believe plastic leads to eternal life because bibble-doobie-plapla.

Again, I am not attacking the conclusions of these arguments, just the methodology. It might be the case that plastic leads to eternal life. But I won’t believe this given the somewhat-poor reasons put forward. There are only a few more things to say.

To those who still defend faith: you must admit that throwing darts at a dartboard and believing whatever is hit by a dart is as equally as “reasonable” as “having faith”. After all, perhaps God was guiding the dart, so that you would arrive at the right conclusion. It is absolutely reduced to chance, coupled with a hope that God has somehow guided this chance for the sake of your soul. (Never mind that there are a lot more beliefs that can be believed by this methodology than would fit on a dartboard or two: a much, much bigger pool of possible truths.)

Now, you might be OK with this if you admit the following: truth must not be the first priority. Perhaps it is comfort or devotion, maybe “love” or something, but it is most certainly not the pursuit of truth. The admission of this is important for anyone of faith. When your rational brain feels so overwhelmingly compelled to doubt your beliefs if they are based on a shaky methodology, just shrug it off and tune it out because truth matters not. Your beliefs almost certainly are based on who told you to “believe this” first. Most likely your parents or family. But this is OK. I won’t make a case for why you should pursue truth. Perhaps it is something each individual has to deal with on their own.

To those who have concluded, “Fine, reasons first”, there are a few more things to say. First, it is wise to reject or doubt every single conclusion that you hold that is based off of a faulty methodology. After that, you must only believe things which you have proper reason to believe. This means that, if you’ve lived your life based on faith, and you’ve recently discovered that faith is a poor methodology, you must give up your faith entirely and devote yourself to reason. Don’t be worried about the conclusions that may follow. Worry about your methodology. (What is a proper methodology and proper reason? Start here.)

Even if the beliefs you might end up holding are less comforting than the those believed by faith, you are being honest to yourself. Getting rid of self-deception, for good reasons, is the most liberating thing I have ever experienced. That being said, you might be surprised what conclusions to can come to (in other words, be skeptical of even the popular skeptics). You must always, always defer to proper reasons. It is never “belief first, then make sense of things.”

And once you commit yourself to such a worldview, you now are compelled to study things like logic, philosophy, truth and falsehood. Things of great import to how you live your life are now up-in-the-air and need to be resolved. This takes a huge amount of work, but it is unspeakably exciting (progress can actually be made). The whole world literally opens up for a rational analysis. Things do make sense, if you have a proper foundational starting place on which to base your understanding of the world.

Posted in God, How to Think Critically, Objective truth | 12 Comments

Three a week: Science

Science is the cornerstone of the modern age, right? Three questions:

 Question 1: Can science explain everything?

There are a few deeper questions at play here.  Are there things which are non-empirical? What does an “explanation” even mean if everything is empirical (do we need some kind of mental concepts before we can have an understanding about anything, or does raw data input count)? What is this “everything” we are trying to explain? Do things exist which categorically can not be explained by such a method?

Question 2: Are their flaws in the methodology of scientific reasoning?

Are there potential gaps, or leaps of faith, involved in the scientific method? Are their assumptions which are glossed over and categorically can not be “tested” for? How sturdy is the methodology of peer review? What if your peers are all wrong? This leads to the third question:

Question 3: Can science ever lead to certainty?

Will “testing” ever yield absolute results? If we test something 100 times, and we find what we think is a correlation between two things, can we ever know with certainty what will happen the 101st time? What tests have you done which establish that empirical testing can lead to certainty?

I want to know: how much “scientific” knowledge that you possess is actually just pure trust of other people. Have you personally really controlled for all the variables at play at any given experiment? Can “trust” of “scientists” (whom you’ve never met and haven’t looked at their methodology or assumptions) ever lead to absolute certainty?

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Happy Thanksgiving. I am spending time/traveling with my family, so I will not be writing until next week.

(What is Thanksgiving anyway? How do you know?)

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The negation of truth

As I have written about before, if you want to base your worldview on a solid foundation, you must center your beliefs around logical reasoning. This post is furthering the search for and analysis of certain truths.

(See here and here for two more methods of discovering logical certainty)

There is another wonderful trick to discover whether or not a sentence is necessarily true. When a sentence is necessarily true, its negation is nonsense. I’ll explain. Let’s take two different sentences which we believe to be true and analyze them:

A: There are more people in the U.S.A. than in Canada.

B: There are no married bachelors in the U.S.A. or Canada.

We believe both of these propositions to be true. Ask yourself, do you know that either of these sentences are true? Do you have certainty about either one? Is either one necessarily true? Let’s break it down:

Sentence A seems absolutely true. If it were false, it would fly in the face of a lot of different beliefs that we hold. However, when you break it down, why do you believe that there are more people in the U.S.A. than in Canada? Have you personally met everybody who lives in the US and gone up to Canada to meet everyone who lives there too? Well, how many people live in Canada? Why do you believe that? You googled it? Someone told you this number and you believed them? Is it logically possible that everyone who told you was mistaken about the number of people who live in Canada?

(Keep in mind, they haven’t met everybody who lives their, either; they were told this is true by somebody else. In fact, nobody on earth has met all Canadians who exist. How pretentious of someone to claim they know the number of inhabitants! In fact, the person who personally punched the numbers in Google or an atlas somewhere has probably not even been to Canada, and has just aggregated all these numbers given by some other person who he doesn’t know and will never know. There are a lot of weak links on this chain that we like to cover up with “trust“.)

Of course it is logically possible that everybody has been misled and deceived, if highly, highly unlikely. This means sentence A is not necessarily true, and we can’t have absolute, 100% certainty about it. (So let’s not make the population of Canada a fundamental part of our worldview; we can’t know anything about it with certainty.)

Well, what about sentence B? It, too seems absolutely true. But is there a difference? Do you need to have visited Canada to know there are no married bachelors there? If sentence B were false, it would entail a logical contradiction: that somewhere, there is somebody who is both married and not-married at the same time.

Aha! There is the answer. Sentence B is necessarily true, as its negation is nonsensical or contradictory. We don’t have to rely on other people’s words to know this is true. Here are a couple more examples:

A: There are more pies made per year in Mississippi than in Georgia.

B: You can divide a pie into smaller pieces and end up with a larger pie.

It would make logical sense if A were false: More pies are actually made in Georgia than in Mississippi. No problem. However, it would be nonsensical if B were false. Given the definition of what “divide” means, you can not slice a pie in half and end up with a larger total amount of pie.

A large portion of these necessary truths are economic. This is the methodology to which the Austrian school subscribes. They study the necessary logic of human action.

One more economic example:

You can not increase the total wealth in a system by solely increasing the amount of money in circulation without increasing the amount of non-monetary goods. In other words, there is no social wealth creation when a currency inflates, only a redistribution of wealth at best.

It would be nonsensical to think that, given our definition of wealth, we could print big bills of money and make society richer. If this were true, all we would have to do to become wealthy is add a few 0′s to the bills in circulation, or print off some trillion-dollar bills for everybody, and we are all instantly blindingly wealthy! This is nonsense. “Wealth” has to do with the amount of total goods, not total currency.

(Keep in mind, this has all kinds of practical implications. Governments around the world are printing fantastic amounts of money off of their printing presses as you read this. Perhaps we should doubt that this will do any good in the long run? Perhaps we shouldn’t  believe nonsense?)

Indeed, you can also apply this methodology backwards. If any sentence implies a logical contradiction, the negation of that sentence must be true, because all contradictions must be necessarily false. For example, modern physicalists are now arguing (for various reasons) that the “self” does not actually exist; it is an illusion. They have entertained the following as being possibly true:

I don’t exist.

Is this possible? There is a necessary presupposition that one makes when uttering this sentence: you must exist. You absolutely can not utter a sentence if you do not exist. Let’s add this necessary presupposition to our sentence:

“I exist in order to be able to say this sentence, and I don’t exist.”

This is a contradiction, which means its negation is true. Therefore, you can know with certainty that the sentence, “It is false that I do not exist.” is true!

Absolute truth, just like that.

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Three a week: Makeup

Millions of women wear makeup. Three questions:

Question 1: Why wear makeup?

Makeup is used to look pretty, right? Well, what is looking pretty? Who determines what pretty is? How much influence does society have in determining what “pretty” is? Are you being pressured by a bunch of strangers  to put paint on your face because they did too?

Question 2: To what end?

Let’s say you’re successful in “looking pretty” by painting your face. What does it really mean if people find this attractive? They find the mask on your face to be attractive? Wouldn’t it mean more to associate with people who appreciate how you actually look, rather than accepting peoples’ praise for your powdery artwork?

It seems awfully depressing. Step one: be convinced that you need to cover up your face with chemicals and powder. Step two: get positive attention from people of the opposite sex while wearing said mask. Step three: to keep your fix of praise from the opposite sex, go out and buy different ingredients to put on your face. Step four: get so wrapped up in this cycle that you feel embarrassed to show your real face to anyone.

Feel better? Feel confident?

Question 3: Is there another way?

People are obviously hooked on positive attention from other people. This might not be a bad thing, depending on who these people are. Who should judge whether or not you are pretty? Are they justified in making their decision; is it an honest one, or are they just regurgitating the preferences of some social norms? Remember, feelings based on unjustified emotions might be a recipe for disaster. I have a solution: acknowledge the pettiness of people’s judgements of you. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, people don’t understand the reasons for the beliefs they hold, and this even applies to people’s ideas of “beauty” and “prettiness”. Keep in mind, societies once thought that the Rubens-esque woman was beautiful, not the skin-and-bones modern “ideal woman”.

Try this: don’t wear makeup, and don’t worry about what people think. Only the people whose judgements don’t matter will think differently of you. If you radiate confidence, it will look a million times more attractive then lathering various products on your face in a desperate attempt to look like other people. At least, at the very least, wean yourself off of the stuff. Clowns are deserving of lots of makeup; they need it. Real people do not.

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Statistical anomalies: are they divine?

Religious people love to claim that God personally intervened in their life. They will give you a touching story about a statistical anomaly which they know couldn’t have happened unless “something else was going on”. That one time that mistake turned into a good thing! That one time Johnny almost fell into the street! That one time I was thinking about somebody and they had just gotten a bee-sting right when I thought of them! That one time the phone rang! It must have been God!

As I have already written about, statistical anomalies are a lousy proof of God’s existence. However, I am going to write about something that has deeply troubled me: where to draw the line? Here’s what I mean: it is easy to chalk up statistical anomalies to… well, statistics. One-in-a-million actually means one in a million. When you have 7 billion people on the planet, such odds seem pretty good, even predictable. This is great when we want to keep together a sharp, skeptical worldview. However, is there a line? At some point, does it make more sense to say “something else was going on”?

Yes, I am curious: what should one conclude from the perspective of the statistical anomaly? It is tempting to chalk everything up to chance, but as you’ll see, that might not be wise.

Those of us who aren’t gullible understand “luck”. Just because you got a royal flush, doesn’t mean God intervened to make it happen. Just because you got that lucky hole in one, doesn’t mean an angel cured your slice. You flipped a coin, and “heads” came up 10 times in a row: it might not be wise to become a convert. Right?

What happens when you get 50 heads in a row? 100? 1000? At what point does it become easier to think the coin is weighted? You were dealt five royal flushes in a row. Something else is going on: someone is cheating.

I was talking to a skeptical friend of mine who was lamenting her friend’s “God moment”, which consisted of an eagle flying across the sky while he was driving. What is easier to believe, God intervened to time an eagle’s flight to “touch” somebody, or an eagle was flying without divine intervention at the same time someone was driving? If the latter explanation can fully explain the event, why posit God?

Well, what if in this scenario, the driver of the car had just “prayed” 5 minutes before and said, “God, if you are real, send a bald eagle to fly over this road in 5 minutes”, and this all took place on Hawaii, where there aren’t naturally any bald eagles. What should the driver conclude?

Keep in mind, it is logically possible for their to be a non-divine explanation for such an event: perhaps a bald eagle had just escaped the local zoo and the timing was mere coincidence. Given the nature of huge data sets, we can predict that somebody somewhere is going to “pray” for something to happen, and it is going to happen. This happens to people of different faiths, too. Should we conclude polytheism, that each prayer is answered by different, mutually exclusive gods? Or, should we remain immovable in our skeptical position?

If we conclude skepticism, you should ask yourself, “Is there any event which could take place which I would chalk up as ‘divine’?”

If you don’t think there is, you are forced into an absurd position. Let’s say you have a dictionary in front of you. You feel creative: what kind of story could you create if you just went through the dictionary at random and pointed to words? Close your eyes, point, then write down whatever word you point to, like a very loosely constructed mad-libs. What would happen if you “spelled” out the Koran, word for word? It is completely possible for this to be a statistical anomaly without any supernatural miracle (no water was turned into wine). What happens after you get freaked out by this event and decide to do it again, only with the same results? The chances would be astronomically low, but possible. In fact, if we have a large enough data set, this would be entirely predictable. At some point, if we point to words at random for long enough, we will spell out the Koran, word for word, without mistake. Because of this fact, should we remain skeptical? Let’s say you’ve done everything in your power to make sure you’ve eliminated other factors (a crappy dictionary, a prank pulled by a friend, etc.), and you try this test one more time. You spell out the Koran, word for word, for a third time in a row, just by pointing to random words in the dictionary.  What do you do?

I have trained myself to understand most religious people as suckers; they see God where he isn’t, and all the time. However, in this example, who is more of a sucker? The person who is so wrapped up in the worldview of “science” and “skepticism”, or the even more skeptical person who reasonably concludes, “Something else is going on here”. If being a proper skeptic means I am forced into rejecting a infinitely more reasonable, plausible explanation for a given event, I am skeptical of this kind of skepticism. At some point, I have to draw the line. I have no idea where, but I absolutely refuse to be so dogmatic as to chalk up such a statistical anomaly to chance.

I will be honest: if a situation like this happened to somebody else, I would reject it. I would conclude that it is more likely the person made a mistake than they experienced some divine event. I think a proper skeptic is completely justified in doing this. However, what happens when it happens to you? Can you put yourself in a thought experiment, and think about what conclusions you would have if such an absurd statistical anomaly happened to you?

Wouldn’t you be falling into the same trap as the religious? We dismiss the religious who claim that their statistical anomaly was from God, but would you believe that yours was? You chose words at random and came up with a flawless version of the Koran, thrice. Do you trust your faculties enough to conclude that this was a real God event, or do you conclude that you must have been deceived, to keep the skeptic’s worldview together?

If the latter, this is methodological mistake, as much as I wish it weren’t. The rejection of the belief, “this is a divine event” is because we skeptics don’t like the conclusions that are possibly entailed. You immediately must ask the questions, “What is God? If this happened, do I have a purpose? Is there objective morality? Should I read the Bible/Koran/Bhagavad Gita now? Etc.” All of these questions are asked by people of faith, which should be a huge red flag for those of a more critical mind.

This is a mistake, however. Just because a belief is held by masses of idiots does not mean it is false. Just because the potential conclusions that follow from a belief are radical, does not mean that belief is false. It might be the case that we share similar conclusions of those who have faith, just for a completely different reason. I will be honest: this idea sucks (for the above reasons). However, to conclude otherwise, to be forced into chalking everything up to chance always, is too disingenuous. I will not believe a worldview just because it feels good, or because it makes me think everything is wrapped up. This a methodological mistake. True, hyperbolic skepticism, or a “temporary agnosticism” should be concluded.

A few more points, just in case you are comfortable with this conclusion. First, a proper skeptic might say, “Fine, it is possible that the absurdest of statistical anomalies can be attributed to God, but something like that has never happened to me!” Au contraire. Your existence is bewilderingly anomalous. Go to the second example in this post. Should you now chalk up such an anomaly to God? I have no idea, to be honest. I do not know where the line is drawn, and hence I said in the beginning of the post: this deeply troubles me.

It seems like our standards should be extremely high if we are to believe that statistical anomalies could be attributed to “something else”. But how high? How can we even go about answering that question? Especially when it is always logically possible to explain any given situation via “chance”.

It seems like those who have faith in God say to everything “God!”. Those who have faith in the mainstream “skeptical” worldview dogmatically say to everything, “Chance!” Perhaps both are wrong. (To see why “god” [a prime mover] is posited by a skeptic, read this and this)

Really, ask yourself, who is the sucker after flipping 10,000 heads in a row?

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Three a week: Intellectual honesty

How honest should you be with yourself? Three questions:

Question 1: What do you know?

There is a difference between what you believe and what you know. You probably believe a bunch of things which you don’t know (as I do, unavoidably). What follows from this? Are you ever justified in acting like you know a belief is false, if you categorically can not know it (Do unicorns exist? Will the sun rise tomorrow?)? If you are justified in dismissing specific beliefs, where is the line drawn?

Question 2: When should you be uncertain?

If you decide to act as if you know a belief is false, might it actually be true? What could follow from this? If the act of dismissal means you are never open to a given truth, are those stakes too high to dismiss anything? Perhaps a genuine uncertainty of all beliefs is warranted, with a genuine open-mindedness to literally every belief, as long as we can not logically know it is false. If you do this, does this prevent you from acting on anything? For example, if you don’t know that a chair exists, but you just believe it and act accordingly, is that justified? Or, should you participate in the active doubting of chairs?

Question 3: Should you be confident in your beliefs?

If you dismiss a belief (that unicorns exist under Antarctica), are you justified in being confident of this? Should one ever ridicule the beliefs of someone else, if they can not know with certainty that those beliefs are false? If not, does that mean you need to have intellectual respect for someone who believes that invisible, unmeasurable Hot-Pocket-regurgitating piglets live in the center of Mars? Should one really approach such a belief with humility?

Are you certain?

Here’s my take on it: you don’t have to take a stand either way if your focus is on what you can know, not what you can believe. There is so much relevant, practical information that you can know with certainty, and instead of dealing with uncertain beliefs, stick to knowledge. That way, you can have a genuine intellectual humility when it comes to all beliefs, as long as it does not cross into the realm of knowledge, where you can logically eviscerate it.

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Can feelings lead to truth?

I have a pet peeve. When people say, “I just feel like this is true.”, I want to slap them. Who cares about your feeling? Whether or not you feel a certain way has no bearing on whether or not something is true, right? Wrong. Dead wrong. I recently came to a realization (in a most dramatic fashion) which blew my mind. You can, indeed, find absolute truth just by feeling. Revolted? Me too. Let me explain.

For the past while, I have concerned myself with (“epistemological”) questions like:
“What is knowledge?”
“How can we know knowledge?”
“What is the process by which we know knowledge to be true?”
“Does absolute truth exist, and how can we know?”

My conclusion, before this recent revelation, went something like this: “All knowledge which we can know with certainty is concluded by logical necessity or logical presupposition.” In other words, logic seems to be the only way at arriving at absolute truth. Or so I thought. While I believe logic is a fundamental, necessary, wonderful, and incredibly powerful way to know truth, it is not the only way. My worldview has expanded to include another methodology: feeling. I will walk you through the process which led to this seemingly preposterous conclusion.

First, a refresher on some absolutely true sentences:
A. “All bachelors are unmarried.” – How do we know? Logical necessity.
B. “I exist.” – How do we know? “I” is a necessary presupposition, if you say that to yourself. (Yes, you read that right, “I is”.)
C. “If the amount of money in an economy increases without any increase in the amount of non-monetary goods, society’s overall wealth does not rise, only prices.” -How do we know? Logical (economic) necessity, given what the definitions “money” and “wealth” are.

Awesome. This is knowledge we can know with certainty. What’s the common theme? Logic. It would be nonsense to say that a bachelor exists who is married. Your own existence is necessarily presupposed by asking a question to yourself, and there is no way around it. Contrast these sentences to the following: “I know that I taste steak.”

Seems innocuous, but let’s put it to the test. How do you know that you taste steak? Are you absolutely sure that you taste steak? If so, what is the method of reasoning which led you to that conclusion?

Hm. Is it a logical necessity, given the definitions of “I” and “steak”, that you taste steak? No. Is it a logical presupposition? Is your tasting steak necessarily presupposed by you speaking that sentence? No. It is logically possible for you to speak that sentence and not taste steak (in contrast, it is not logically possible for you to think a thought without you existing). It is certainly no economic law that you taste steak. So how can you know it? Or, can you really know it?

Now, I will be honest and say I literally was up all night thinking about this when it crossed my mind. I absolutely hated the idea that I thought I knew I tasted steak, and it wasn’t a logical necessity; I just felt it. But this seems ridiculous, so I had a few objections to the idea that I knew I tasted steak. For example:

Skeptic: No no, you can’t say that you know you taste steak, because that implies that a thing called “steak” exists objectively. You can’t know with absolute certainty that a meta-physical “steak” exists, therefore you can’t know that you taste it.

More skeptical skeptic: Well, that’s not quite true. It actually doesn’t seem to matter if there is an objective physical steak. That’s not the claim. The claim is simply that I am tasting something, and it is a flavor that I call “steak”, regardless of the cause of why I am tasting it. It might be a hallucination, but that is irrelevant.

Skeptic: Here’s the problem with that: you are assuming that you know what this flavor tastes like by calling it “steak”. This implies that you have tasted it before, which implies that the past necessarily existed. You can not know with absolute certainty that the past existed, so you can not know whether or not what you taste is what you call “steak”.

More skeptical skeptic: That is also not the claim. I don’t claim that I have tasted this in the past, only that, in the present, I know that I taste a flavor which I call “steak”, regardless of the cause of that flavor and regardless of if I have tasted it before. I know that I taste a flavor in the present.


That is very close to how the actual internal dialogue took place.

If it is the case that you taste steak, which only you can know by thinking about it, then you can know with certainty that the sentence “I taste steak” is true. The methodology is simply one of introspection. Yes, you can know some truth just by feeling. Now. initially, this looked like a challenge to the sharp, logical worldview I have been working on, but upon further inspection, it isn’t. In fact, it explains a considerable amount of the erroneous conclusions that people draw about the world; they simply use this methodology in the  wrong way.

(Here’s the most comforting part about all of this: this doesn’t touch logic at all. Logic is still pristine. It is not possible to feel something and not feel something at the same time. You can not feel a contradiction. There is just a bit of information which you can know without it being logically necessary.)

Where this methodology goes awry is the cause of my pet peeve. People apply their feelings to propositions that aren’t related to their feelings. When I say, “I taste steak.”, that is completely related to my internal reality. It is something I can know, and it only relates to myself. When I say, “I feel like the minimum wage should be $10/hr.”, I have committed an atrocity. Feelings DO NOT apply to any proposition that relates to anything but yourself. You can not feel whether or not X is true, unless X has to do solely with your internal feelings. This can not be overstressed. I can not know that “it is raining outside” simply by feeling. I can know that I am experiencing the feeling of rain, but in no way does it follow that the cause of my feeling is because of some external reality. (This problem has enormous implications, which I will write about later.)

Unless a proposition in question is literally about your feelings, do not act like your feelings towards it affects in any way whether or not it is true. It categorically does not matter how you feel about abortion; it is either infanticide or it is not infanticide, irrespective of your beliefs or feelings.

Just because it is so over-the-top-dramatic, I’ll tell you how I came to this uncomfortable understanding about feelings. I fell in love, and I knew it. But, “How can I know such a thing?” I asked myself.

“I just know it. I feel it, and I know I feel it.” Poppycock! What a philosopher you are!

But alas, love forced me to expand my worldview, if only a little bit.

Enough romance. To rephrase again: Logic applies to both external reality and internal reality. Feelings do not. You can know both internal and external truths via the methodology of logical reasoning. You can only know internal truths by the methodology of introspection about your feelings. Please, keep it that way.

As for what constitutes an “internal reality”, more on that later. (With huge implications.)

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