These past few months, I’ve become more interested in how I know, than what I know. While facts play a big role in the formation of my values and beliefs, the primary concern is summed up in my title, How Do I Know?
How did I decide that my favorite set of values are ‘right,’ as opposed to all those ‘wrong’ values? How did I settle on my particular list of ‘good to know’ facts, and how do I test and retest their reliability in the real world?
An open letter to my former church, in which valuable advice on how to retain members is humbly offered.
The biggest problem facing the Seventh-day Adventist Church is arguably how easily they lose church members. They constantly praise one another for each new baptism, but chronically ignore established members who no longer attend.
Religion is a gateway drug. Well, drug, in the metaphorical sense, as in an anesthetic for critical, rational, logical, skeptical thinking. But it is a gateway also, in the sense that when you assent to the claims of a religion, you thereby make it much easier to assent to other dubious claims. Claims against which, if you hadn’t tied up your critical thinking and thrown it down in the basement, you would have had some defenses.
“Many of my critics fault me for not engaging more directly with the academic literature on moral philosophy. There are two reasons why I haven’t done this: First, while I have read a fair amount of this literature, I did not arrive at my position on the relationship between human values and the rest of human knowledge by reading the work of moral philosophers; I came to it by considering the logical implications of our making continued progress in the sciences of mind. Second, I am convinced that every appearance of terms like “metaethics,” “deontology,” “noncognitivism,” “antirealism,” “emotivism,” etc., directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe. My goal, both in speaking at conferences like TED and in writing this book, is to start a conversation that a wider audience can engage with and find helpful. Few things would make this goal harder to achieve than for me to speak and write like an academic philosopher. Of course, some discussion of philosophy will be unavoidable, but my approach is to generally make an end run around many of the views and conceptual distinctions that make academic discussions of human values so inaccessible. While this is guaranteed to annoy a few people, the professional philosophers I’ve consulted seem to understand and support what I am doing.” (Note 1, Chapter 1; emphasis mine)
I stood up and applauded when I read that. Well, mentally, anyway; I read most of the book in the break rooms at my job while I ate lunch, which means a literal standing ovation-of-one would’ve been awkward.
To me, what commends the thinking and reasoning and explanations of scientists is not that they are very certain of the claims they make; it’s that they most often are the exact opposite of certain. Scientists are notoriously averse to drawing conclusions with an air of certainty, instead usually bathing each statement in a thick coating of qualification, moderation, and pensive hesitation. It’s as if the most dangerous way to behave within scientific circles is to behave as if you just figured something out to a mathematical certainty, even if you have done so. ‘Embrace doubt and skepticism’ seems like the unwritten code of science. The first impulse of the researcher upon making a possible discovery or breakthrough seems to be to turn to colleagues and say, “please prove me wrong.” Which, of course, is true, because of the importance of falsifiability and criticism to the scientific method.