The Glenn Beck Paradox, Part 2

I wrote the following in response to some very thoughtful comments on my post, “The Glenn Beck Paradox.”  If  philosophy-talk is not your idea of a good time, then avoid the following:


To all,

I just love these philosophical discussions.

First, of course it is good advice not to just put trust or faith in any one person or idea, but to seek out all the information one can in a finite period of time.  But at some point, one has to stop looking and make up one’s mind.  G. K. Chesterton said,

The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.

The point of the post was to raise the sticky issue of epistemology (“What is knowledge and how do we come to know what it is we think we know”) in the context of someone (Beck) who clearly wants people to take his word for things, despite his urging them not to.  That is one of the oldest tricks in the Book of Demagoguery.

Despite Beck’s pleading, “Don’t take my or anyone else’s word for anything,” I was simply trying to point out that there are limits to skepticism.  Even science makes assumptions about the universe which cannot be proven, and without those assumptions, we would not have “knowledge” in the sense most of us use the word.

Fundamental among the assumptions of science would be the “real” existence of the physical universe (and other minds).  Science also assumes natural causation (the root of most conflicts between religion and science).  Scientific reasoning assumes that explanations for things happening in our universe can and will only be found in nature itself.  And, further, the evidence supporting those explanations will only come from the natural world, which, science assumes, has an operating consistency we would call predictability or “order.”

Oddly, none of these assumptions in science can be proven by science.

But notwithstanding the epistemological (and causation) problems in science, I raised the epistemology issue in the Beck post because it has always been a mystery to me how we come to know what we believe we know. 

Given the fact that none of us have infinite time to explore issues, how do we come to sound conclusions?  How much do we need to read and from what sources?  How much weight do we give a particular source?  Don’t we naturally give more weight to sources who share our worldview?  But, then, why do we have that worldview in the first place?  Where do we actually get our basic views?  Our opinions?  Even our assumptions?

I realize a lot of folks know the things they know because their truth meters are calibrated by their parents or priests or pastors.  But I know a lot of people who have rejected their childhood training, some radically so.  What’s the difference between those that do and those that don’t?

These things have fascinated me even before I did a 180 degree turn, as far as my political (and for the most part, my religious) views are concerned.  I can tell you what real-world events I think (I “assume”) led me to change my mind about conservatism, but I can’t tell you how those events actually “caused” that change, if in fact they really did.  Lots of people confront things that challenge their philosophy, but they don’t change their views.  They mostly stick with them.  Why is that?

I was so fascinated by this topic that I once e-mailed Alvin Plantinga, the great Christian philosopher, who is a first-class thinker and who is credited with rehabilitating theism’s respectability among professional philosophers.  I had understood his explanation of a belief in God as a “properly basic belief,” but I wondered how he could also consider confidence in the veracity of the Bible as a properly basic belief, too.  He referred me to a chapter in one of his books, in which he explains how the “conditions” for such a basic belief can be met.  Is he right?  Beats me.  Wish I knew.  I can only say I don’t believe he is.

But I do believe we have to have some sort of confidence that we can reason our way to justifiable beliefs and that what we then believe corresponds to the way things are, which in turn leads us to the way things “ought” to be.  

I am at present reading Sam Harris’ new book, The Moral Landscape, in which he argues that not only can science “determine human values,” it is our only reliable guide for doing so.  I started out as being somewhat skeptical of his claim, but I am becoming more convinced.  Again, how does such “convincing” work?  Beats me. Wish I knew. I can only say I am coming to believe he is right.

Finally, I believe in the power of scientific reasoning because it appears to represent the best hope we have of not only discovering valuable and useful knowledge about the universe, but about ourselves.

Oh, I do believe something else: Glenn Beck doesn’t have the foggiest idea what scientific reasoning is, and his lack of understanding is infecting others, as this audio clip demonstrates:

Vodpod videos no longer available.



  1. ansonburlingame

     /  November 14, 2010


    I too love to ponder these things and the older I become the more I now ponder. One reason is I now have the time to do so without the pressures of the daily grind. I love awakening each morning and doing as I choose, not how someone else choses for me to act or “do”.

    All humans are falible. Some reach to God or their gods for solutions based on faith to avoid doing “wrong” or painful things that cause bad consequences. Others approach the problem from “logic”.

    But you left out an important word. EXPERIENCE. In your case your “180 degree turn” was ultimately caused by your experiences in life. You made some choices early in life that you now regret. Your “painful” experiences from those choices cause you to say “never again”. It is like a child putting his hand on a hot stove. One time is all it takes to “learn” through experience that is a bad idea. He learns such much more quickly from the painful experience than all the cautions from Mom, never to get near a hot stove.

    Long ago I thought Strom Thurmond (when I lived in Charleston, SC) pretty much had it “right”. Not now of course. But unlike you I have never moved to thinking Obama has it “right” either. As I cast around for a guide today based on my own experiences, I find no single party or leader that I am ready to provide my wholehearted support, unlike the 80% of the voters you point out in your previous and valid ( in my view) analysis.

    That puts me in the “nose holding” 20% when I vote. When I write however, I usually don’t have to hold my nose. I write based primarily on my experiences and “scientific” approach or logic as best I can use such logic, again based on experiences.

    It is one thing to read a book or listen to a lecture from a wise teacher and then take a test to “pass” the course. As a student experience plays only a small role in such “study”. But in these pages (I like Jim’s comment on the “trilateral blogs”) experiences dominate and all of our experiences are unique to us, as older men.

    And for sure we collectively are not necessarily wiser, just more experienced. But sometimes the best “wisdom” gained is through the experiences of a full life with an open mind. None of us today put our hands on hot stoves in reality though I am tempted to expose your posterior to a hot poker from time to time.



    • Anson,

      We could, of course, have quite a sword fight with our respective hot pokers.

      But I do appreciate what you’ve said here, especially the Strom Thurmond story.

      I want to mention that I did include experience in my post:

      I can tell you what real-world events I think (I “assume”) led me to change my mind about conservatism, but I can’t tell you how those events actually “caused” that change, if in fact they really did. Lots of people confront things that challenge their philosophy, but they don’t change their views. They mostly stick with them. Why is that?

      I really can point to some things in my experience that I am fairly confident enabled me to change my views, but I still allow for the possibility that I was “programmed” to go in that direction anyway, as I got older. For instance, both of my parents were Humphrey Democrats and it really irked my mother when I went far, far right. But rather than succumb to her pleadings, I sought to convert her to my point of view, a view I held for not quite 20 years. So, perhaps my parents’ political views somehow influenced me to turn back in ways that were much more powerful than I think.

      I do know this: because of a simple set of science encyclopedias that my mom bought me when I was about 9 years old, I learned that evidence matters when trying to prove something. Despite my years in “darkness,” I never forgot that early lesson, which is how I think I was able to change my point of view from hard right to soft left. Evidence is really all I care about, in terms of whether, say, a particular policy works to improve society. I think there is substantial evidence that Republican and conservative economic philosophy is a dismal failure. If it were a raging success, I would be all for it because I want everyone to prosper.

      What I think is true is that all of this stuff is often just a matter of interpreting the evidence, which is fraught with all kinds of dangers (economic self-interest, class affiliation, etc) as we try to evaluate as best we can what we see.

      I think that you and I would both agree that we want the best possible for all Americans, not just a slice of the population. And toward that end, I hope that you and I at least can agree on the body of evidence that needs to be interpreted, while recognizing what may be cultural or class or economic barriers to accurately interpreting that evidence.

      Now, about that hot poker…



  2. @ both,

    We three seem to have one thing in common, i.e. minds that question, even into maturity. It seems to me that intellectual curiosity is moribund in many adults.

    Plantigna said, “It has seemed true to the vast majority of mankind that some being worthy of worship, whom we all worship and who is responsible for our existence and the like, that some such being does exist. I think that has been obvious to the bulk of mankind. That’s fundamentally what Calvin is saying when he speaks of the sensus divinitatis.”

    There is a possible explanation for this sensus divinitatis that wasn’t mentioned in Plantigna’s interview: It may be that evolution produced a God-part of the human brain. It seems to me a viable hypothesis that spirituality can be a survival trait in that it reinforces perseverance, promotes tribal cooperation and insulates from fear. This is also consistent with the notion of genetic variability in that the degree of spirituality, like any other trait, would naturally vary among individuals.

    I would very much like to have the security of belief in the afterlife, but I cannot be dishonest to myself. Fundamental to my problem is something that touches the references to experience made by each of you, i.e., the question of why bad things happen to good people, or its variant, why evil exists. These, together with the absence of objective evidence, appear to me to rule out the Christian concept of a loving and engaged God. IMHO, we are on our own down here.

    Thanks for the link, Duane and to both for the discussion. I too find the subject interesting, albeit ultimately unresolvable.



    • Jim,

      Well said. Your naturalistic explanation of the numinous I want to repeat:

      It seems to me a viable hypothesis that spirituality can be a survival trait in that it reinforces perseverance promotes tribal cooperation and insulates from fear.

      I don’t know how it could be said any better in one sentence.




  3. ansonburlingame

     /  November 15, 2010

    Bad things happening to good people, one of the eternal mysteries. Normally bad things happen to people as a direct result of bad choices by those individuals. But in that above case bad choices by others can affect good people making their own individual good choices.

    The drunk driver (bad choice) killing the child (or adult) driving safely is but one example of the above.

    People believing that God controls all things cannot solve that problem of a “bad” person causing harm to a good person who in no way deserves bad things to happen to him/her. However people believing in free will, thus allowing anyone to make bad choices, can still look to God for “help” once bad things happen to them regardless of their previous good choices.

    To counter the “faith is crap” lobby, I remain convienced that after something terrible happens to an individual there remain subsequent good and bad choices to be made to do the “next right thing” after a calamity. That is where some faith might well play a significant and personal role in our lives.

    And such a belief system leads to politics as well. Accept that Obama inherited a calamity. He must then make choices given the calamity. Right and wrong choices thus play a role, a huge role, in politics. Just like the father of the dead child killed by a drunk must make future choices as well following a calamity.



    • Anson,

      I don’t argue that for a lot of folks, faith plays a “significant” role in their lives. I just wonder at what collective (and personal) cost?

      That we could debate endlessly, I suppose.



  4. Anson,

    It may feel that I’m “after you” today, but honestly I’m not.

    When you say, “Normally bad things happen to people as a direct result of bad choices by those individuals”, you are ignoring a great deal, things like tornados, hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, ice ages, plagues, traffic accidents, fires, structure-collapses, repressive governments such as North Korea’s, poor genes, and diseases of all kinds (elephantiasis, leprosy, plague, dengue, malaria, macular degeneration, Fuch’s syndrome, lyme disease, TB, dwarfism, sickle-cell anemia, muscular dystrophy, mental retardation, insanity, Down’s syndrome, and ALS, just to name a few). I’m sure I’ve missed many, especially in the disease category.

    All of the above is reality. It is interesting to me that conservative Christians generally stake claim to religious values, the central one being the Golden Rule but prefer to deal with the less fortunate through charities while liberals prefer to care for them through government programs. From reading literature from AIP and from my own life experiences I believe that institutional solutions are more efficient and more comprehensive while charities and churches more likely to be corrupt, inefficient and short-term.

    One case in point in the news recently is the rapidly-growing cholera outbreak in Haiti. There was a massive outpouring of charitable giving following the Haitian earthquake. This had the effect of drawing tens of thousands of refugees to tent cities, and there they stayed! ABC TV news the other day said that most refused to leave because the tent city was so much better than what they had before! Moral: charity peaks and then pales, but often has no “exit plan”. Government solutions almost always have a plan, even if they don’t always execute real well.

    Of course, there must be limits to government plans as well – demand always grows to match whatever subsidy is provided. For sure, as you say, “faith” has its place. I just wouldn’t put too much faith in it.



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