Tag Archives: knowledge

I’m At a Loss


I’ve been finding it difficult to come up with ideas for blog posts, which is why this blog hasn’t been very active lately. As such, I’d like to leave it up to the readers: what would you like us to write about? Would you like to know something specific about our atheism? Do you have an argument that you’d like us to address? Would you like us to discuss a particular book? Do you have any questions about Philosophy, Biology, or History? Would you like to know our stance on a particular feminist issue? Is there something else you’d like us to write on? Let us know in the comment section.

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At What Point is it Rational to Believe a Claim?


probability

It isn’t easy to determine what claims should be believed and what claims shouldn’t be. There is no easy answer to the question “when should we believe”. However, this is a very important discussion to have. It may not always be obvious whether we should believe something or not, but it is possible to determine whether or not a belief is rational.

But, before I discuss how we can determine whether a belief is rational, I should discuss when it is necessary to determine if a claim should be believed. This is a difficult concept for a lot of people. Many people want to be overly skeptical, and others aren’t skeptical enough. So when should we determine if our beliefs are rational? When our beliefs have a significant impact on us or on those around us. But what does that mean? It means that everyday claims don’t tend to count. If I were to say “I want cereal for breakfast,” Withteeth does not have to be skeptical of that claim. He doesn’t have to demand that I prove that I want cereal. If I were to say that I have class at 4:30, Withteeth still does not have to be skeptical. However, if I were a drug addict who had a habit of using the “I have class” excuse to sneak out and get high, then he has reason to be skeptical. He can demand that I show him my class schedule, and he can even follow me to class, watch me enter the classroom, and ensure that I don’t leave the entire time. In short, he can know for sure that I went to class, and he can base his belief on that knowledge. But he shouldn’t believe that I have class at 4:30 without at least looking at my schedule if I am known to be untrustworthy. But, while this example has a significant impact on our lives, it doesn’t effect anyone else. There are other things that have a lot more impact and, as such, require a lot more evidence. Belief in God is one example of such a claim. If God exists, then his existence, assuming the Bible is an accurate representation of God’s personality, has a significant impact on the world as a whole. As such, existence of God requires more evidence than whether or not I am skipping class. Showing that God exists is a start. This can be done in a number of ways. The easiest would be to point to God and say “there he is” and for God to then do something that proves he is God. Without that, though, you can also prove God exists by showing that something could not exist without God. This is the route that a lot of theologians take. The problem is that it is difficult to prove that something could not exist without God. But, even if God were proven, that is just a start. You would still have to prove that this God, again assuming the Bible is accurate, is the God of the Bible and not some other God. As you can see, this is a tall order.

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So how do we know that our beliefs are rational? By determining whether they are probable. Absolute knowledge isn’t necessary to say that a belief is justified (it isn’t even necessary to say that you know something). But there is a degree to which you can say that a belief is rational. Evidence is how we determine the probability of a belief being true. Going back to the skipping class example, how would Withteeth know that it is rational to doubt my claim that I have class at 4:30? If he has caught me skipping class a number of times before, then it is likely that I would do again. If it is the middle of the semester and I have never gone to a 4:30 class before, then it is likely that I am lying. If he has heard from a number of other people that I constantly skip that class, then he has reason to believe that I am lying. He is not rational in believing that I will skip my class, or that I don’t have class, if I have only skipped one class that he knows of. He is not rational in believing that I don’t have a class if I am always at school from 9am to 6pm and he doesn’t know when each class is. And he is not rational in believing that I’m lying if one person told him that I skip the class a lot. He doesn’t have enough evidence to make that claim. So how would he determine the probability that I will skip class? He would need to do some research. He could go to my professors and ask them, but they may or may not know. He’d also have to go to my classmates. Assuming that a number of them know who I am and remember my relative class attendance, he could create an average of how often I probably attend class. From there he can create a probability of my likelihood of my skipping class. Though his evidence would be much stronger if he had a more concrete evidence. For example, if I had a camera watching me while I sat in class during every class I attended, then he could say for a fact how many classes I skipped. Then his probability would be more accurate.

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But how high does the probability have to be for the belief to be justified? That depends on the claim. If the probability is 51%, that should be enough for the claim “I have class at 4:30.” But a claim like “God exists” requires a higher probability.

So when is it rational to believe a claim? That depends on the claim. It is always rational to believe the claim “I want cereal for breakfast,” but, depending on certain characteristics related to the person making the claim, it might be irrational to believe the claim “I have class at 4:30.” However, in most cases. It is perfectly rational to believe that claim as well. But it is less rational to believe the claim “God exists” because of the lack of evidence and the low probability. I’ll link to a few sites that may help with further understanding of this concept.

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/epistemology-bayesian/

http://personal.lse.ac.uk/list/PDF-files/Reasons-for-belief.pdf

http://www.iep.utm.edu/relig-ep/

http://www.quora.com/Is-belief-a-rational-default-position-for-any-claim


Can We Know Anything?


Philosophy has a lot of theories about knowledge. Whether we can know anything, how much we can know, what we need to be able to say that we know. So can we know anything?

I’m no skeptic (in the philosophical sense, not the atheistic sense), so I’d say yes. We can know things. But our knowledge is probabilistic. I don’t think we can know anything with 100% certainty. But we can certainly say that we “know” to a degree that makes it unlikely that we are wrong.

For example, I’d say that I know that Stephen Harper is the Prime Minister of Canada. This is a simple fact for those of us in Canada, and I’d say that I’m 99.9% certain that I know that this fact is true. But there is still the chance that I’m wrong. Perhaps I’m simply dreaming that Harper is Prime Minister, or maybe I’m a brain in a vat. Both cases are extremely unlikely to the point where I’m confident in saying that I know that Stephen Harper is Prime Minister.

But, like I said before, there are many theories. So, can we know anything?


Criticizing Others


When I was at LogiCON on Saturday, one of the speakers mentioned how saying “you’re wrong” can easily be translated as “you’re stupid” or “you’re bad.” I think that this is a good point. I talk to a lot of people who believe things that I disagree with. Normally I ignore the belief, because it tends to only affect them. If someone wants to believe that aliens built the pyramids, whatever. As long as they aren’t forcing their beliefs on anyone else, I don’t really care. But sometimes I can’t not speak up. If I think that someone is doing something that will cause harm, then I want to at least encourage them to do otherwise.I cannot not speak up when someone wants to get rid of GM food altogether. If they want to eat organic, fine. But the organic food industry cannot support 7 billion people. I cannot not speak up when someone wants to give up necessary medicine and take alternative medicine instead. And I cannot not speak up when someone wants to force their religious beliefs into politics. 

I’m fine with people believing whatever they want, but I’m not okay with them using their beliefs to cause harm. We all deserve to be treated with respect. That means that I respect their right to believe, but that also means that they respect my right to not believe. Keeping that in mind, how do we let someone know that they are wrong without making them feel stupid? Everybody does stupid things now and again, and we all hold certain beliefs that we aren’t willing to examine closely. But that doesn’t mean that we are stupid. It simply means that everybody is wrong sometimes. 

I want to help people think critically about their beliefs. I want to encourage them to look more closely when I think that they are wrong. That doesn’t mean that I want them to change their mind. I simply want them to support their beliefs with concrete evidence. And I want them to do the same for me. I want them to point out when I am wrong and help me abandon the beliefs that I cannot support with evidence.

But this doesn’t seem to be how most people think. Most people seem to hold their beliefs up on a pedestal and won’t allow anyone to touch them with a ten foot pole. They take it personally when their beliefs are questioned. They also refuse to question others beliefs. They let their loved ones believe things that they see as wrong. This seems odd to me.

So how do we question peoples beliefs without putting them on the defensive? How do we assure them that we don’t think they are stupid? And how do we encourage them to do the same for others?


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