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:
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: