Monday, March 17, 2014

A Prophet Claims he has the Word of God

Jake: Hey Chris, did you hear about the newcomer who claims to be a prophet? He says that he has the word of God. This is his book. He’s passing it out to everyone in town.

Chris: Ya I heard about that. What do you think of it?

Jake: Well it seems right.

Chris: Why do you think so?

Jake: uh, it’s hard to explain.

Chris: What do you mean?

Jake: ...

Chris: Well have you searched for evidence?

Jake: uh.. well look at this verse that says ‘All swans are white.’

Chris: What about it?

Jake: If I can find evidence to support this verse, then viola.

Chris: There are two problems I see in what you’re saying. (1) Evidence doesn’t work by support. And (2) you didn’t explain you reasoning for why you think that if that verse is true, then that means that the book is the word of God.

Jake: What do you mean "evidence doesn’t work by support"? 

Chris: Well, let’s consider how it could work by support, if it were actually possible.

Jake: We could look at all the swans and see if they are white.

Chris: Ok let’s say we find out that they are white. Then what?

Jake: Well then the verse is true.

Chris: But it’s possible that there are swans that you didn’t check. Maybe one of those is not white, and if this is the case, then that means the verse (or theory) is false. So that evidence you found did not "support" the theory that "All swans are white."

Jake: uh.. well we can’t check all the swans everywhere. No matter how much we look around the world, we might have missed some swans. So we’ll just check as many as we can and if all of them are white, then that means that this theory is very likely to be true.

Chris: But theories are either true or false. Whether or not a theory is true is not a matter of likelihood or probability.

Jake: Why not? Sometimes we say that there is a 30% probability that it’ll rain. That works right?

Chris: But that’s not the same thing. Whether or not a theory is true is different than whether or not an event will occur in the future. Try to think of it like this: There is a theory that, at this moment, according to a specific weather model, the calculation it produces is that tomorrow there is a 30% chance of rain. Whether or not this theory is true is not a matter of probability. IF somebody actually used this model to make this calculation that tomorrow there is a 30% chance of rain, THEN this theory is true.

Jake: Oh. So does that mean we can’t prove the verse that "All swans are white”?

Chris: Right. We can’t prove theories true. We can only refute theories. In other words, evidence does not work by "supporting" theories, and instead evidence works by refuting theories. So evidence is never of the form of a positive argument, and instead it's always of the form of a negative argument.

Jake: Ok so if we don’t find any colored swans, then that means the theory that “All swans are white” is not false. 

Chris: Well, it just means that it's not false as far as we know.

Jake: So doesn't that mean that it's true as far as we know?

Chris: Right.

Jake: So nothing can be known to be actually true and nothing can be known to be actually false?

Chris: Right, we can never be absolutely/omnisciently/infallibly sure whether an idea is actually true, or actually false.

Jake: But that means that we don’t know anything at all!

Chris: No it doesn’t. We have computers, which apply technological knowledge which was created from scientific knowledge that we discovered in our pursuit of knowledge about the physical world. If we didn’t know these things then we wouldn’t have computers, or any other technology.

Jake: So we do know stuff.

Chris: Right. We have fallible knowledge about the truth.

Jake: This is confusing.

Chris: Well, that's why it's better to use the terms refuted and unrefuted, instead of the terms true and false. True and false refers to actually true and actually false. Refuted refers to false as far as we know. Unrefuted refers to true as far as we know. [1]

Jake: Wait a minute. I'm lost again. So then how can you say that we can’t know if a theory is actually false?

Chris: Well, it’s possible we were wrong about a refutation of that theory.

Jake: Can you give an example?

Chris: Well, consider that you found a black swan. Now you’ve refuted the theory that “All swans are white.” Do you agree?

Jake: Yes.

Chris: But now let’s say that I found out that the swan you think you found was actually a newly-found species of duck.

Jake: Ah, so the theory that “All swans are white” is no longer refuted because the refutation we had of it is now refuted.

Chris: Right.

Jake: But then we know that this refutation of the theory is actually false. Right?

Chris: No.

Jake: Why not?

Chris: Because maybe somebody else comes along and refutes my refutation by showing that I was wrong that it was a newly-found species of duck and that it was actually a swan.

Jake: lol, so now, as far as we know, the theory that “All swans are white” is refuted again.

Chris: Right.

Jake: And we don’t know that for sure? (that the theory that “All swans are white” is actually false?)

Chris: Well, maybe somebody comes along and shows us that actually this swan isn’t black, and it was white and it was painted black by somebody who was trying to fool us.

Jake: lol, so you’re a skeptic. You don’t believe anything at all. You don’t trust anyone or anything!

Chris: Well, I do have beliefs, but I treat them all as tentative, because I know I'm fallible. I leave them all on the table, ready to be refuted, and possibly replaced with better beliefs. And you’re right that I don’t do trust.

Jake: You mean you don’t trust me? But I don’t lie. I wouldn’t cheat you. I wouldn’t hurt you.

Chris: Well, that’s not the only way you could be wrong. It would be a mistake for me to take your word for things. The point is that, like me, you are fallible, which means that any of our ideas could be wrong, and that we are wrong often. So what we need is a way of thinking that accounts for the possibility of error.

Jake: So how do you explain how science works then? Don’t they consider their theories true?

Chris: No. They treat their theories as tentative. They are always looking for error, double-checking and triple-checking experimental results, criticizing each other’s interpretations of the data, etc. And then when a new theory is found that better explains the data than compared to an old theory, then the old theory is shelved in favor of the new theory. In this way, our theories are replaced by even better theories. So, we go from flawed theory, to less flawed theory, to even less flawed theory, and so on, as we get ever closer to the truth.

Jake: hmm, so what I should be doing is trying to find mistakes in the holy book.

Chris: Well that’s one thing you can do, but that’s not enough. You also want to look for mistakes in your reasoning.

Jake: Oh ya you said that in the beginning. What did you mean by that?

Chris: Well your reasoning seemed to be that IF the verse “All swans are white” is true, THEN this book is the word of God.

Jake: Ya that doesn’t make sense. Even if that verse is true, it’s possible that other verses are false.

Chris: Right, but that’s not all. Even if all the verses are unrefuted, that doesn’t mean that it’s the word of God. A human could have written it.

Jake: But humans are fallible, we make mistakes. So how could a person write a book with no mistakes?

Chris: No mistakes? Or no mistakes that we know of so far?

Jake: Ah. Even if we don’t see any mistakes in the book now, that doesn’t mean that we won’t find mistakes in it in the future.

Chris: Right.

Jake: Ok but at least we can say that, if the theory (that this book is the word of God) is unrefuted, then we can act on that theory as long as it’s unrefuted.

Chris: That’s reasonable.

Jake: So what sort of mistakes should we be looking for?

Chris: Well, I just told you about a mistake. So the theory that this book is the word of God, is already refuted.

Jake: huh? what mistake?

Chris: Your argument for your theory was that IF X (this verse is unrefuted), THEN Y (this book is the word of God). And this is false logic. All we need to do is give a counter-example. For example, it’s possible that a human wrote all the verses, and it’s possible that nobody has found any mistakes in the verses. So even IF X (this verse is unrefuted), that doesn’t rule out the possibility that Z (a human wrote the book).

Jake: I think I understand you. I'll rephrase what you said, and you check my understanding. So I argued that IF X, THEN Y, but that's wrong because Z was possible too, and Z hasn't been ruled out.

Chris: Right.

Jake: Ok. So at this point the theory (that this book is the word of God) is already refuted.

Chris: Right.

Jake: But we didn't use any evidence!

Chris: That's right. Most theories are refuted for containing bad explanations, not because they contradict the evidence.


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[1] Refuted and unrefuted is the standard terminology established by Elliot Temple. I'll clarify how refutation works: First we start by identifying a problem. Then we brainstorm proposals for solutions -- these are theories. And these theories are rivals of each other. Then we brainstorm criticisms of these theories, and we brainstorm criticisms of the criticisms. A criticism is an explanation of a flaw in a theory -- note that evidence can be used as part of a criticism. If a theory has an outstanding criticism, then it's refuted. The goal is to have a theory that refutes all of it's rivals -- this theory is the unrefuted theory, because it doesn't have any outstanding criticism. All the other theories are refuted because each one of them has at least one outstanding criticism.

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