Friday, June 3, 2011

Talbott vs. Loftus: Testing the Outsider Test of Faith

I recently stumbled across an essay by Tom Talbott--a Christian universalist like myself and a careful, thoughtful philosopher--that may be of interest to readers of this blog. It is an extended critical discussion of John Loftus's so-called "Outsider Test of Faith," which Loftus's fans seem to think is a profoundly insightful and important basis for critiquing religious belief.

In brief, the Outsider Test of Faith, or OTF, is (in Loftus's words) “a challenge to believers to test or examine their own religious faith as if they were outsiders with the same presumption of skepticism they use to test or examine other religious faiths. I have addressed Loftus's OTF only once before on this blog, and then only in passing in a blog post about authorial voice. My interest in the OTF has been minimal largely because it seems to have no real bearing on the kind of religion I want to defend; instead, it poses a threat only to more fundamentalist and exclusivist expressions of religious belief--which I wish to criticize right along with Loftus. Here, in full, is what I've had to say about the OTF on this blog up to this moment:
This principle seems sound enough within its sphere of application, but it is clearly framed in response to an exclusivist brand of religious epistemology radically at odds with the pragmatic and neo-Hegelian approach that I find compelling—an approach which leads me to articulate an inclusivist respect for alternative religious traditions conditioned by what I call (in my book) “the logic of faith”—a logic which imposes standards on when it is morally and intellectually appropriate to live as if a hoped-for possibility is true. These standards are ones I apply to my own religious life as well as to the religious lives of others. It is according to these standards that I extend conditional respect to a diversity of religious traditions—the condition being that they fall within the parameters of the logic of faith. And it is according to these standards that I trenchantly oppose more fundamentalistic expressions of Christianity.


In other words, Loftus is not talking to people like me—whom he tends to dismiss rather precipitously on his blog as engaged in little more than intellectual gerrymandering to avoid atheist arguments. As far as I can tell, he never takes seriously the possibility that our perspective was arrived at through critical reflection in the light of a range of experiences, ideas, and arguments, including those pointed out by atheists like Loftus.
After reading Talbott's philosophical critique of Loftus's OTF, I now feel as if I may have been far too generous in my assessment. That point aside, one of the things I really liked about Talbott's essay was his emphasis, when it comes to evaluating religious faiths, on juxtaposing any sort of "outsider" test with a corresponding "insider" test. As Talbott puts it in the essay,

With respect to many of the world’s great religions, particularly the eastern religions, I no doubt remain an outsider in this sense: I have a far greater familiarity with, and intimate knowledge of, the Christian religion than I have in the case of these other religions. But for that very reason, I should be less (rather than more) prepared simply to dismiss that which I do not yet fully understand. And for a similar reason, a true outsider, whether a fundamentalist Christian or a crusading atheist, is the last person I would trust to evaluate a non-Christian religion accurately, whether it be Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, or Taoism. Such an outsider is also the last person I would trust to evaluate my own understanding of the Christian religion.

Here, Talbott is expressing one of the chief methodological points that I first had driven home for me by reading Hegel: We are well-positioned to be effectively critical of a worldview or philosophy only to the extent that we can "step into it" and see how the world looks from the inside. Criticism of belief systems falls flat when one tries to perform such criticism from the outside.

According to Hegel, one cannot engage in criticism from a vacuum. One needs a framework within which to conduct criticism--an outlook or philosophy which provides standards of criticism. And when outsiders to a particular philosophy or outlook criticize that philosophy or outlook as outsiders, what they are doing (often without realizing it) is bringing the presuppositions of their own philosophy or outlook with them. These presuppositions thus end up not being critiqued, and you have an essentially unproductive exercise: "Given all the presuppositions of theoretical  framework A (which are being embraced uncritically), theoretical framework B is to be rejected insofar as it holds x, y, and z (where x, y, and z refer to views in B that are at odds with the presuppositions of A)."

Hegel thought there was only one way to avoid such dogmatic criticism. You had to engage in criticism from within. And you are most qualified to engage in such internal criticism when the belief system in question is (you guessed it) your own. You subject your own worldview, your own philosophy, to critical assessment by assessing its internal consistency, by testing its capacity to make sense of your lived experience--in short, by attempting to live it out critically to see how well it works according to its own standards. When one does this, one's worldview does not remain static but becomes dynamic, constantly evolving in the light of lived experience and critical, internal reflection. This, for Hegel, is the only way to avoid dogmatism: focus most of your critical attention on your own belief system, rather than spending your energy criticizing everyone else's.

To paraphrase one of Hegel's intellectual predecessors: "Stop trying to remove that splinter from your neighbor's eye. First, remove the mote from your own."

32 comments:

  1. Ah, yes. I wondered what you'd think of Talbott's essay when I was referred to it by Victor Reppert several weeks back.

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  2. This is a pure defense of obscurantism. Unless one can truly enter into the philosophy of, say, Hari Krishna, or Moonie-ism, one can not critique it. The fact that they make illogical, disprovable claims and propagate absurd, unrealistic beliefs.. that apparently is not enough to critique those sensitive "philosophies" that purport such profundity.

    If you are promoting these frameworks as art, then yes, the feeling one has might not be fairly evaluated or impugned by anyone else other than in a sympathetic way. But if you are talking about philosophy, this is the way to no thought at all.

    "And you are most qualified to engage in such internal criticism when the belief system in question is (you guessed it) your own."

    This could not be more backward. Why does the critic with framework A unknowingly bring her presuppositions to the criticism of framework B? Because she is unconscious of them. How much more unconscious will she be when trying to "critique" her own framework? It is the purest naval-gazing, expecting the cult member to deprogram herself. Good luck. Humility is very good, but one shouldn't expect truth to come out of it.

    Again, if you view life styles as art, then one does indeed have to live it out as the other person to evaluate it fully. (Clearly an impossible task, incidentally, leading us to a bit of relativism, I dare say.) But if you view the lifestyle as descending from a philosophical position with rational values, logic, and "truth" to it, then it is the outside critic who tells you the most.

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  3. One thing the outsider can certainly do, is put questions to the insider, in order to discover the central assumptions upon which their differences lie. (And consider their questions in return). These very often will be questions that will not occur to the insider because, as you say, the assumptions we bring to the table are the ones we are least likely to be aware of.

    Isn't there a very good example of exactly this process unfolding on this blog? So, for instance, I remain very puzzled by the claim that the subjectivist can not sensibly evaluate, modify and choose between moral systems in exactly the same way an objectivist can. And so I question it, hoping simply to understand better the assumptions that lie beneath it, and ideally to have that perspective provide me with an opportunity to re-examine my own assumptions.

    Bernard

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  4. Hi Eric,

    [...] only to the extent that we can "step into it" and see how the world looks from the inside.

    One context in which this certainly applies is when we consider different cultures. The only way to come to a real understanding of another culture is, indeed, to “step into it”. This is how we can make sense of its traditions, rituals, values and seemingly trivial things like dress code and so on.

    But this is all relativist stuff. It makes no sense to claim that one culture is more “true” than another.

    This “looking from the inside only” approach fails, it seems to me, when one claims that some element of his/her cultural framework represents some universal truth. This applies, of course, to what we've been discussing concerning moral values.

    It seems inconsistent to claim that one's values should be judged only from the inside while asserting that they are objectively true.

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  5. A couple of points. First, it clearly IS valuable and instructive for different belief systems to engage with one another--but NOT if the engagement simply takes the form of "Your belief system is wrong because it doesn't measure up according to my belief system's standards of evaluation." Such engagement is most valuable when it helps each of us become more aware of our own presuppositions and inspires us to reflect critically on them.

    Second, it is not impossible for an outsider to offer helpful critical remarks about a belief system. Sometimes the outsider perspective sees things that are harder to see from within. But this doesn't mean that progress within a belief system is best pursued by outsiders. Hegel's idea is that the truth which we are attemtping to connect with through our belief systems is best connected with when we live out our own belief systems critically so that we progressively move closer to that truth--and the kind of criticism that moves us closer to the truth is the kind of criticism that comes from discovering the "internal contradictions" that arise as one strives to live out one's belief system. To use an imperfect analogy, a belief system is like a pair of lenses through which one looks at the world, and without the internal perspective--without being able to see what the world looks like THROUGH the lenses--we cannot adequately assess the lenses. This does not mean wearers of the lenses will necessarily be good at critiquing them. But the optometrist gets the right prescription by having the patient try on different lenses and asking them which makes the image sharper. Sticking tenaciously to the lenses one happens to wear, even when one keeps stumbling into things an missing things others seem to see, isn't what Hegelian internal criticism calls for. Nor is trying on very different lenses willy-nilly. The optometrist progresses incrementally and gradually from an initial starting point, making small changes and asking if it is an improvement.

    Third, with respect to JP's comment that "It seems inconsistent to claim that one's values should be judged only from the inside while asserting that they are objectively true": Hegel is often mistaken for a relativist because he thinks we can only make progress towars the truth working from WITHIN a system. The Truth (or "Absolute"), is for Hegel independent of any of these belief systems and what each belief system must ultimately be measured against. But we can't simply hold our belief system up to the truth--since that would require that we already HAVE the truth. The question is how we GET to the truth from where we are. We don't get to it by assuming that we have it, and we don't get to it by attacking the belief systems of others. We get to it by discovering its inadequacies from within and modifying it incrementally. For this reason, Hegel thinks any starting point--any cultural worldview, value system, religion, metaphysic, philosophy--is an acceptable starting point so long as one lives it out with this critical and progressive approach. It should be clear that this is hardly relativism.

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  6. An optometrist could equally well evaluate the sharpness of a lamp's projection on the patient's retina without asking the patient their opinion of the test lens's sharpness. There is something objective to be measured here, and asking the patient about it is merely a convenience, though obviously a substantial one.

    Likewise, any system of philosophic truth is accessible without presuming one or another approach. As you say after Hegel, any starting point may suffice. But only if, (and it is an enormous IF), the person is willing to ask the tough questions, (apparently unbidden from pesky critics), and willing essentially to throw their system away if it fails to square with incoming evidence. And that is basically Loftus's program, after all.

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  7. Burk: Two quick points. First, I called the optometrist example an imperfect one for the very reason that you mention. If you want a better analogy, assume we're dealing with an optometrist at a time in history before the resources were available to make do without the subject's input.

    Second, with respect to the following: "..any system of philosophic truth is accessible without presuming one or another approach." This strikes me as one of the presuppositions underlying your own worldview. I can criticize it from the outside, but in so doing I'd likely rely on presumptions of my own worldview whcih you would summarily reject. If you are sufficiently self-critical, this might lead you to become more aware of the fact that you ARE relying on a set of presuppositions, and perhaps more aware of WHAT those presuppositions are. And this may position you to more effectively engage in internal criticism.

    Finally, Hegel would be very hesitant to recommend that anyone "throw away their whole system" in the face of contradictions. We approach the Absolute, on his view, by progressively refining our initial belief system in the light of contradictions discovered through living it out, passing on the refined system to the next generation who then continue the process, etc. To throw out the whole system is to start all over again. Even a paradigm shift is born OUT of its predecessor and acquires its shape by virtue of the structure of the predecessor system and the nature of the contradiction that emerged in working out the system in practice. As I understand Hegel, he allows for such steps of radical change--but only when they are the necessary next step in the progression. If a problem can be resolved through a refinement of the existing system, then a paradigm shift is uncalled for. Loftus, in my judgment, is not merely calling for a paradigm shift (when that might not be what is called for). He is demanding that fundamentalist religious believers throw out religion altogether when, in fact, the problems he identifies can be overcome by the kind of paradigm shift WITHIN religion--of the sort we find, for example, in Schleiermacher.

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  8. I guess that was three points.

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  9. With due respect to Hegel, sometimes there are contradictions that are so fundamental to a system of belief that refinements are not enough. Magical claims never supported by evidence can only be "reinterpreted" so far, before their rationale breaks down utterly, or the refinements threaten to make a farce of their supposed object.

    I do have one presumption, which is that the person is able to process information in a rational way and give up unsupported or illogical claims and beliefs. If that is possible, then a convergence is possible on a common and maximally accurate philosophy, whatever the absolute is.

    Loftus is not demanding that religion be thrown out as a final objective, only that its suppositions be held at arm's length while philosophy is being done. How else could persons of all persuasions end up in the same philosophy- the true philosophy?

    Otherwise, each religion places absolutely fundamental claims in the way of reconciliation that cancel the effects of any amount of refinement. Take Christian universalism, which labors to bring all people into the Christian fold by the back door of "eventual" salvation. One wonders why you don't offer secret corrective baptisms to the deceased and wayward heathens, as the Mormons used to. There remain suppositions that need to be examined and offered up to one's better judgement.

    The question is basically whether the putatively uniting philosophy should be based on the evidence of reality, or whether it should be based, as is traditional, on the imaginative efforts of those looking for hope in the face of the void. Whether truth should trump hope, or hope truth. Personally, I think we can salvage quite enough hope from the former to make it preferable.

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  10. I would suggest that if you are keen on productive reconcilers, you look at Don Cupitt and John Spong, who succeed far beyond Schleiermacher in their engagement with reality.

    To take an utterly cheap shot, "Schleiermacher" means to make veils, while our aim is to take them away!

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  11. Eric,

    The process you describe by which a belief system “improves” by discovering its inadequacies from within and modifying it incrementally may well produce an internally consistent system, highly satisfying according to its own standards. This type of “convergence” towards a more or less stable state is not very surprising.

    But why would that process lead to the truth? Why would internal consistency (and all the rest) be any indication that the resulting beliefs are true in any objective sense? This seems a very huge claim.

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  12. Hi JP: About internal consistency as evidence that a belief system is objectively true, it seems to me the process Eric describes is sort of like the scientific method. A theory is proposed, certain things are implied by the theory, and tests are performed to see if the actual results are consistent with the theory. The more consistent results that are found, the more confidence scientists have in the theory. If a result is inconsistent with the theory, the theory must be changed either a lot or a little. What Eric describes looks a lot like this, with the experiments being the life you are living.

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  13. Hi, Keith-

    That is all very nice, except for two points. One is that the track record of religions paying attention to internal inconsistencies is not very good. Second is that, if we are talking about philosophy in the "looking for truth" variety, then the criterion is consistency with reality, not with an internal system, or with life as lived. Suppose that Mormons are by every measure happier and more successful than other groups of people. Does that make their religion "correct"?

    If we are talking about the "what is good" brand of philosophy, then we really are not talking about anything that can be called a "truth" in the classic sense, and the above arguments go out the window. The most extreme cult can be as happy as the day is long, and thereby "prove" the efficacy of its precepts and philosophy in the living of human life.. it is a circular, self-referential criterion.

    Then it just comes down to how "the good" and "truth" intersect, in terms of truth being conducive to subjective happy living. And while I have my personal preferences, much of psychology and anthropology indicates that the intersecting set is far from 100%.

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  14. hi Burk: You make a couple of points that I'd like to address.

    1. You say that religions don't have a very good track record when it comes to paying attention to internal inconsistencies in their belief system. Let's assume that's right. This doesn't count against any specific set of religious believers. Eric is advocating a Hegelian/scheiermacher approach to religious thinking; even it it's true that most religious people don't practice such that doesn't have anything to do with the approach Eric is talking about. You might might as well say that PEOPLE don't have a very good track record when it comes to honestly examining their own thinking and use that to criticize all attempts to find truth--even science.

    2. I'm not sure why you make the point about the difference between a belief system promoting happiness and being true, but it seems to me that your point could be applied equally well to the scientific method. Theory X implies a bunch of experimental results. Those results obtain. As a matter of logic, this doesn't prove that X is true. The syllogism "A implies B, B is true, therefore A is true" is a logically fallacy. But when a enough of those experiences (scientists call those experiences "experiments") are consistent with X being true, scientists accept X AS true. How is this different from the religionist who accepts his religion as true when enough of his personal experiences are consistent with his own religion being true?

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  15. Hi Keith

    May I step in here?

    My experience of talking to professional scientists would suggest they don't often make the logical fallacy you suggest here. They don't often talk of models being true, rather they speak of them being the current best match with existing data. (Allowing for the convention we have discussed at length, of not permitting new ad hoc theories into consideration until they have established their own falsification test - this being a matter of pure pragmatism).

    The great strength of the scientific project is, I think, precisely the availability of the outsider perspective, because rather than an individual wrestling with and examining their personal model, a whole community turns its mind to the task and hence advancement becomes massively more likely.

    To treat the two modes equally then, as you propose, the individual does indeed have warrant to say that 'here is my belief model and for now it is the one that, considering my network of other beliefs, experiences, aspirations etc, it is the one I am most comfortable with.'

    Now, the scientific convention of arguing that a non-falsified model is more likely to be true than a falsified one allows the best model to be seen as also the current best fit with reality. It also demands that science not judge non-falsifiable models either way (hence my attachment to agnosticism).

    I'm not sure by what convention your notion of personal fit would suggest that the most psychologically comfortable fits are also the most likely to reflect reality.

    Bernard

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  16. Hi Keith,

    Good to read you again!

    You're right, there is some family resemblance between what Eric describes and science – but resemblance is the key term here. Confronting one's beliefs to one's life is “sort-of” similar to testing a theory against experiment but while experiments on nature will presumably help uncover how nature works, trying a belief system against your life may help tune it to make it work better for you (leading a more fulfilling life, all that kind of things). The latter, however, has nothing to do with “universal/objective truths” or the like.

    I think it's clear that internal consistency alone is far from sufficient for truth (it may not even be necessary). And Eric is very insistent that the inside view is the one that matters. To argue that this process leads to the truth (and, moreover, from almost any starting point) needs something more. There is a big part missing. I am very curious as to how such an argument can be made.

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  17. Hi JP: I think the consistency Eric is referring to is a consistency between the belief system and ones life experiences (he spoke about the dialectical process as discovering the internal contradictions that arise from trying to live out one's belief system). The only difference between this and what scientists do seems to me to be the kinds of experiences being examined. Maybe the Hegelian religionist measures his religion based on how meaningful life with his religion is, but how is this different from a scientist measuring his theory based on whether they produce accurate predictions? The religionist wants meaning, the scientist wants predictive power. Unless you can show that having predictive power means the theory is probably true, both forms of Seeking seem equally pragmatically respectable.

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  18. Hi Keith

    Is one difference convergence? Predictive power converges upon public truths, to the extent that the second law of thermodynamics, for instance, holds for all observers. This is built into the definition of predictive success, that it holds no matter who does the measuring.

    It is unclear to me why the process you are outlining should produce any such convergence. Is it not possible that two individuals, resolving their life/belief conflicts, progress towards quite different, even contradictory private narratives? All that would be required would be different cultural starting points. So, for example, by this method it might be true both that there is a God, and that there is no God, depending upon who is doing the exploring.

    That feels like an inadequate use of the word truth to me. Perhaps all honestly examined narratives do converge to a shared narrative, but the question becomes, how could one establish that? Equally, how does a person assuming this avoid the risk of intellectual imperialism?

    Bernard

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  19. Hi Keith,

    Let's assume that your analogy holds and see where it goes.

    Testing a theory against nature will presumably produce a continually improving fit between said theory and nature. Likewise, testing a belief system against one's life (or culture) will produce a better fit between the two. We can describe the two situations as some kind of convergence between theory (or belief system) and some observable reality (nature or life or culture).

    Now, nature is essentially a passive and invariant part of this process. Thus, we may expect that this convergence will produce reliable knowledge about nature and that different starting points will end up at the same place. This is what we observe: we don't see, say, various schools of physics producing wildly incompatible results. What we have, as Bernard points out, is predictive power and public truths.

    On the other hand, in the case of belief systems versus life/culture, what we have in place of an invariant nature is a large number of different and shifting subjects (persons, cultures). And, while there might be convergence in a specific case, there is no a priori reason to think that different starting points will produce similar results. This is also what we observe: there is a large variety of, often incompatible, belief systems, each with its own values, and so on.

    In other words, considering the above, there is no obvious way the process of convergence between belief systems and one's life/culture can lead to any objective or universal truth. At first sight, the opposite seems more credible. Of course, things may not be that simple and there are, I suppose, arguments trying to establish the opposite. I think the value of such arguments is a central question here.

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  20. Hi JP and Bernard: Maybe this question will seem very dumb, but that never stopped me:-). Why assume that a theory producing more and more accurate predictions and thus producing widespread acceptance among scientists brings us closer and closer to the truth about how the universe is? Let me use Newton's physics vs. Einstein's relativity as an example. There was a point at which all scientists accepted Newton's physics as truth, but eventually it produced predictions that conflicted with experimental data. Einstein's physics is really quite different from Newton's. That time is observer-relative is radically different from time as conceived by Newton. On Einstein's view event A can occur before event B for one observer and yet occur simultaneously for the other. Newton's theory is good enough if all you are interested building bridges and stuff, but if you are after truth, Newton's physics is wrong. Why think that they same won't happen to Einstein's physics (or whatever comes after that)?

    I'm not saying that science DOESN'T lead to Truth, btw. But an answer to the question seems to me to be relevant to the discussion.

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  21. Hi Keith,

    [...] brings us closer and closer to the truth about how the universe is.

    I am more and more puzzled by this idea of “truth”. I can understand the idea when we have well defined criteria for it – or, if you wish, true relative to some larger context. As always I suppose, I fail to make sense of absolutes. So, I don't know what Truth means.

    What science does, I think, is building models of reality and these models can be judged by how well they fit with it, essentially through experiments. In this sense, the “fitness” becomes the criterion for truth. So, perhaps, when we say a theory is “true” (always approximatively and tentatively, of course), strictly speaking, we simply refer to the quality of the fitness. The “truth” of a model is defined this way.

    There is of course a big difference between a model and reality. The movement of planets can be modelled using differential equations but planets are not solving them to decide where to go. Who is to say what reality is?

    To go back to Truth, do you see any way to define this without also specifying a “truth-maker”? But then, “truth” becomes defined by what we get by applying the truth maker, in other words, it becomes relative to it. Doesn't that downgrade Truth into the more mundane “truth”?

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  22. Hi Keith

    Actually, I think that's exactly the right question, in as much as many science enthusiasts (myself included) see something in science's manner of progress that set it apart from other forms of knowledge; and that's a strong claim that needs justifying.

    I agree with the approach JP is taking on this. At some level at least, when I say a thing is true all I mean is that the statement makes an accurate prediction, in relation to some pre-defined measurement. Certainly this is what I mean when I say is influenza is contagious, or the car outside is the same car I parked there three hours ago. It is also why I don't say it is true Leonard Cohen is a genius (even though personally I think he is).

    Because Relativity provides predictive accuracy over a greater range of data, it is a better description of the physical world than Newtonian Physics. It may well be improved upon in the future (some believe its failure at the quantum level supports this possibility).

    You are asking also whether we can justify the claim that a better fit with the data implies a better fit with reality. If the fundamental reality of the universe is uneven and inconsistent, then it is possible to imagine a case where our increasingly accurate models are taking us ever further from the true description of the complete data set.

    I am betting on a degree of consistency (with only intuition and pragmatism in my defence), but even if this doesn't hold, in science we can still speak meaningfully of one model of the available data being better than another, as in the Newton case. Science's progress stems largely from the inbuilt device (measurability/falisfiability) by which these distinctions can be made and publicly agreed upon.

    When it comes to private data (feelings, gut responses, revelations or personal conviction) I'm yet to be convinced that any process exists that yields equivalent progress. I don't see how the Hegelian process alluded to could avoid two private investigations diverging, no matter how rigorously the participants examined and resolved their own internal contradictions. Having said that, I know very little about Hegel so someone better informed may be able to help here.

    Bernard

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  23. Hi JP and Bernard: Let me be at the same time specific and general. Imagine I have 2 theories of the universe, theory A and B. Theory A proposed 12 kinds of particles and 15 mathematical rules governing their interactions, theory B only has 5 basic particles and 3 basic rules. Amazingly, both theories can accurately predict all the phenomena we can currently observe. But they aren't both true. Now we can use Occam's Razor to choose B over A, but not because B can shown more likely to be TRUE than A. I mean it might not be the case that there are only 5 basic particles. Our only reason for choosing B is that B is simpler. Now quite likely these theories will produce other predictions as well, maybe for experiments we cannot yet perform. And probably A and B will differ in what they predict for at least something. When we can eventually do those experiments we can decide which theory to reject (maybe both if they both fail). Anyway, you can imagine this process gradually, eventually, eliminating those theories that cannot be true, and by definition what's left is closer to being true (assuming the universe doesn't change its nature all the time). But how fast is this convergence to the truth? Who knows.

    Now consider an analogous religious process. Maybe this process is more private than science is. It's not entirely private in that religions usually involves GROUPS of people. But being private isn't that big a deal since in a sense ALL experience is private experience--I privately experience reading your insightful posts for example, and I have to decide for myself what I think the things I know imply. But just as in science, I can gradually eliminate religious "theories" that don't fit my experience of life, theories that as far as I can tell cannot be true. Eliminating false theories would presumably by definition be moving us closer to the truth. How long will this process take? I don't know, the same as for science.

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  24. Hi Keith

    I guess the private/public distinction is a big deal for me, in the sense that JP's already mentioned.

    The problem, as I see it, with the private process of personal reflection, is that you and I, meditating upon similar external circumstances, may edge towards entirely contradictory conclusions. Which suggests to me that we can not be both moving closer to the truth, which in turn suggests the process is not necessarily one that delivers such progress.

    You speak of rejecting theories that are false, and by this I take it you mean theories that do not provide a good match with your experience of living. But because this experience is private, there is a chance another, from a different cultural starting point, may find the very same theory an excellent match for their experience of living. And so the best we can say in this case is the theory becomes better at accommodating a given individual's life experiences.

    That's a worthy outcome in itself, but if we are to allow that two theories developing in opposite directions are both moving closer towards the truth, doesn't this ask of us a rather unusual definition of truth?

    So, the original question of Hegel remains for me; is there something inherent in his proposed process of resolving contradictions that might provide a public convergence?

    Bernard

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  25. Hi Keith

    I guess the private/public distinction is a big deal for me, in the sense that JP's already mentioned.

    The problem, as I see it, with the private process of personal reflection, is that you and I, meditating upon similar external circumstances, may edge towards entirely contradictory conclusions. Which suggests to me that we can not be both moving closer to the truth, which in turn suggests the process is not necessarily one that delivers such progress.

    You speak of rejecting theories that are false, and by this I take it you mean theories that do not provide a good match with your experience of living. But because this experience is private, there is a chance another, from a different cultural starting point, may find the very same theory an excellent match for their experience of living. And so the best we can say in this case is the theory becomes better at accommodating a given individual's life experiences.

    That's a worthy outcome in itself, but if we are to allow that two theories developing in opposite directions are both moving closer towards the truth, doesn't this ask of us a rather unusual definition of truth?

    So, the original question of Hegel remains for me; is there something inherent in his proposed process of resolving contradictions that might provide a public convergence?

    Bernard

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  26. Hi Bernard: It seems to me that a process whereby you (a) test your beliefs against the things you experience and (b) eliminate those beliefs that are inconsistent with the things you experience--beliefs that are consequently false--either converges to the truth or it doesn't. It seems to me that this applies to religious beliefs as well as to scientific beliefs. If the process DOESN'T converge to the truth, then neither science or religion are ABOUT the truth. If the process DOES converge to the truth then it applies to religion just as it does for science. You say that because people can have similar religious experiences and come to contrary conclusions, therefore the convergence process doesn't seem like it'd work for religious belief. I would argue it's not the case that similar experiences produce contrary conclusions. That's nuts, you say:-) Muslims praying to God are convinced that Muhammed is God's profit, Christians praying to God are convinced that Jesus is the Son of God. I would argue that those experiences are different--if you look at the details, if you look at the specific thoughts each praying person has, those experiences are different. And inasmuch as they are similar they produce similar results--both Muslims and Christians feel themselves to be in communion with the divine creator of the universe. Now if the Christian is farther from the truth than the Muslim, I'd suggest that the Christian would encounter more experiences that are inconsistent with his Christian beliefs. And if Islam were the true religion then the Muslim's Islam would converge toward the true Islam, and the Christian would move gradually closer to converting to Islam. How long would this process take? I don;'t know, how long does it take science to converge to the true scientific theory?

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  27. Hi Bernard: It seems to me that a process whereby you (a) test your beliefs against the things you experience and (b) eliminate those beliefs that are inconsistent with the things you experience--beliefs that are consequently false--either converges to the truth or it doesn't. It seems to me that this applies to religious beliefs as well as to scientific beliefs. If the process DOESN'T converge to the truth, then neither science or religion are ABOUT the truth. If the process DOES converge to the truth then it applies to religion just as it does for science. You say that because people can have similar religious experiences and come to contrary conclusions, therefore the convergence process doesn't seem like it'd work for religious belief. I would argue it's not the case that similar experiences produce contrary conclusions. That's nuts, you say:-) Muslims praying to God are convinced that Muhammed is God's profit, Christians praying to God are convinced that Jesus is the Son of God. I would argue that those experiences are different--if you look at the details, if you look at the specific thoughts each praying person has, those experiences are different. And inasmuch as they are similar they produce similar results--both Muslims and Christians feel themselves to be in communion with the divine creator of the universe. Now if the Christian is farther from the truth than the Muslim, I'd suggest that the Christian would encounter more experiences that are inconsistent with his Christian beliefs. And if Islam were the true religion then the Muslim's Islam would converge toward the true Islam, and the Christian would move gradually closer to converting to Islam. How long would this process take? I don;'t know, how long does it take science to converge to the true scientific theory?

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  28. Hi Keith,

    We may have a misunderstanding here and I suspect the culprit is this evasive notion of truth we’re using. I will try to explain what I see as the difference between the two situations without referring to the T word.

    Broadly speaking, I think both are similar in that they represent a progressive convergence (or synchronisation) between two entities. In one case (let’s call it S), the entities are scientific models and nature (in the general sense, including physics). In the other case (B) the convergence is between one’s beliefs and one’s life experience. You mention religion in your comment but I think the method we originally talked about was a more generic “beliefs versus life” affair, of which religious beliefs may be a special case. In any case, the details are more or less relevant to my point.

    Consider first S. Because one of the converging partners is invariant (nature), the only way a convergence can occur is if the other partner (scientific models) moves towards it. These models then have a reasonable claim at universality: they will describe nature correctly (or approximately so) over a vast domain of time and space – as far as we know, the whole observable universe.

    The difference I see with case B is that there is no invariant. Both sides (say, beliefs and way of life) are free to move. Thus, while there might be convergence to a stable state, there is no a priori reason to believe that from different starting points this process will lead to the same conclusion. On the contrary, and this is precisely what we observe: beliefs and ways of life vary significantly between cultures.

    Of course, not everything goes – humans, after all, have a common origin and we may expect that various end points will have some aspects in common. But, even in this case, nothing can be easily extended beyond the human sphere.

    I understand some say that it doesn’t matter – that, despite the differences, this process has also a claim to universality (for example, concerning objective moral values). But saying it does not make it so. This requires a proof of some kind and I am curious as to how such a proof can be crafted.

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  29. Hi Keith

    I'm sort of arguing the reverse of what you've put here. Not that people with identical experiences will still find different narratives provide the best fit, but rather that people with different experiences as their starting point may well converge upon quite different, even contradictory narratives. And we do all have different starting points, thanks to our genes, our physical and our cultural environments.

    With science, people with vastly different cultural backgrounds, working on the same problems, do indeed converge upon the same solutions. This is due, as JP points out, to the fact their claims are tested against what we assume is an invariant backdrop, that of the physical world.

    What I am interested in, with regard to Hegel, is what in the process leads us to suspect that the resolving of internal contradictions will lead to anything other than points of personal stability. Any ideas?

    Bernard

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  30. hi JP: I wouldn't frame it the way you did, with science bring about a convergence of theory with NATURE and the religious process (let's call it religious evolution) bring about a convergence with our personal lives. Using the word "nature" to be a synonym with objective reality, I'm suggesting that both religious evolution and science converge to different aspects of objective reality. Why? because (according to the argument) eliminating false ideas about objective reality moves you closer to the truth about objective reality. In the argument, a person's personal experiences are data points about objective reality, the same as how experimental results are data points about objective reality. I guess I am saying I don't see a qualitative difference between the two processes. There is a difference between measurable things (different people can measure the same thing and get the same values, so they are working from the same facts). I can even see how this might help science converge FASTER to truth than religious evolution would given the private experiences that play a role in religion. But it seems to me that any argument to the effect that science can get to TRUTH (instead of just getting to consensus) applies equally well to religious evolution.

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  31. Hi Bernard: You argue that because the scientific method can induce agreement between people of quite different cultures, this is evidence that..actually I'm not 100% sure what you are saying. It SEEMS like you might be saying that the convergence of scientific opinion is evidence that science gives us objective truth. For example, when Einstein says that IF a space shop accelerated to nearly the speed of light and returned to earth, the people on the apace ship would have aged much more slowly than the people who remained on earth, this claimed by the theory to be an objective fact about the universe, and YOU seem to be saying that since science can produce consensus about the rightness of the theory that claims such, this is evidence that science yields objective truth. My question would then be: why would such consensus be evidence in favor of the claim that the theory is true?

    On the other hand, maybe you aren't claiming that science yields objective truth in that sense. Maybe scientific theories are really just a convenient shorthand description of the experimental facts we already know. But if that were the case, then predicting things that HAVEN'T happened would be irrelevant to the task of science; scientific theories wouldn't be FALSIFIED at all because they wouldn't be claiming anything.

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  32. Hi Keith

    I'm just saying I don't yet see how an introspective process of conflict resolution between world view and personally interpreted experience can be expected to converge upon an external truth. My argument is that it seems at least plausible that two people starting from divergent sets of experiences, may follow the process to different, even contradictory conclusions. I'm looking for some aspect of the process that would ensure the sort of convergence claimed. So, interested in possibilities for that.

    I mention science really by way of a contrast. Whether scientific theory converges on any sort of truth about reality, or even whether that phrase is meaningful, is a further question. What we can say is that scientific theories have over time increased the accuracy of their predictive power, and the process by which theories are accepted or rejected (primarily matching of prediction with objective measurement) can apparently be insulated from the cultural starting point of the participants. So, this isn't a claim about truth, but just an observation about the historical progress of the scientific body of knowledge to date. At the very least, an Hegelian type process would need to be capable of producing such collective progress over time, if it is to make any claims about approaching truth.

    As you'll see from a later thread, I share your respect for Hume's inductive challenge. My personal take on it is, if we wish to claim for science this abstract quality of approaching a true description of reality, then we need to assume regularity, and then be consistent in our justifications for doing so. This is the main case I would make in defence of the reasonableness of religious folks such as yourself.

    We can of course retreat to the easier to support claim that scientific theories provide the best explanation of known data, and then leave it to the individual to choose whether to use this as the basis for extending their description of the world to unknown data.

    Bernard

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