Today I was approached by some evangelists on the streets of Washington D.C. Our conversation got me to thinking about the processes by which we discover truths.
How do you know whether something is true?
The fundamental epistemological problem is that you can’t ever know for sure. How do you verify that your fact-discovery process actually discovers facts? You’d need independent knowledge of what is actually a fact and what isn’t. The problem recurses infinitely. At some point, you either have two choices: You must either believe in the truthfulness or falseness of some set of test facts that you use to verify that your chosen fact-discovery process works, or you have to believe in the specific process itself by which you have obtained the information.
My problem with evangelists is that they take the first approach – they ask you to believe in a truth first, and claim that afterwords the proof of it and other truths will become clear – whereas I take the second approach. In other words, evangelists have a small set of “known” truths and falsehoods and use that set to verify the truth-discovery processes from which they discover their other truths, whereas I trust whatever facts are generated by a particular process that I believe is rather good at discovering truths and falsehoods.
Which method is better?
Well, better for what? As a proxy for truth, I suggest that you try to actually understand some object or some phenomena in the universe well enough to predict it, use it, or manipulate it. If that is your goal, the latter method gets much better results.
Over the centuries, the scientific community has tried many different methods of knowledge generation. The process that has produced the highest-quality truths when applied to prediction and engineering, even accounting for uncertainties and randomness, is the proof-then-truth model. That is why the scientific community has adopted it as the current standard. The method by which you first believe something is true and then find proofs consistent with it has resulted in many “truths” later discovered to be erroneous. Until these errors are corrected, they slow down technological (and thus indirectly social) progress and innovation.
The evangelists I spoke with tried telling me that my default skepticism made me closed-minded. They said that I was looking for problems with their facts because I had already decided against them.
I disagree. I would actually consider myself more open-minded to facts philosophically than an evangelist, because my truth-discovery process doesn’t assume any particular facts are true beforehand. The problem was, of course, that I was very much decided against their fact-discovery process, which then made all of their facts suspect in my eyes.
Because I judge the quality of a truth based on its predictive power and ability to help me interact with the world, I don’t think that the evangelist process produces very high-quality truths. Perhaps my evangelist counterpart has different goals. Perhaps she values the happiness she receives from believing in eternal life more than she values manipulating the physical world. Perhaps the truths that follow from taking the Bible to be the word of God produce better and more consistent effects according to her experience of the world.
I certainly can’t fault any particular individual for their choice in values, even (especially) when I disagree with them. Heterogeneity in individual values is healthy for a society. However, I do think that in general, an entire society built upon a truth-then-proof fact-discovery process would not last long.