October 4, 2017

On Epistemology

Filed under: Philosophy,Politics — Bob Gifford @ 8:38 pm

We are living in a post-truth world. Belief in a universal, knowable truth has given way to truth as multiple, personal and subjective. What is true for me may not be true for you. Post-modernists argue that even scientific laws are contextual and culturally derived.

The amount of pseudo-science, conspiracy theorizing, and outright rejection of empirically verifiable facts is killing us. Too many people believe that everything is political, everyone is biased, “they” are keeping secrets from us, no one has integrity, everyone has a hidden agenda and the whole system is rigged. In this mindset, there is no source of truth except me and my tribe.

This is bullshit.

How do we decide what we believe? And how should we decide what we believe?

Herewith, then, is my epistemology.

Values are values, facts are facts. We will all disagree about our personal values and what gives meaning to our lives. We will all have different religious (un)beliefs. But facts can be measured and validated by both liberals and conservatives. They are not opinions, but can be empirically determined.

Any engineer with the right resources can measure the torque a 747 wing can withstand, the lateral tensor strength of a column in the World Trade Center, the temperature at which jet fuel burns, the degradation in tensile strength of steel at that temperature, etc. In fact, many engineers know these facts. Math is not subjective, and the structural analysis of the World Trade Center collapse has been reviewed repeatedly by architectural and structural engineering graduate departments all over the world. They come to the same conclusion, because physics is not culturally determined, liberal or conservative, Christian or atheist.

Things that are not facts include Youtube videos, which have been used to “prove” that we never landed on the moon and that Obama is a lizard alien. (I am sure that Obama is not a lizard alien. I am still undecided regarding Mitch McConnell.) Video is notoriously unreliable, especially when coupled with a compelling voiceover. Even if it is not tampered with, selective editing, lighting, point of view and other effects I’m not qualified to opine upon make them a poor substitute for quantifiable facts.

Speaking of which, compelling narratives aren’t facts. We have evolved to be storytellers, and we love telling and hearing stories. We form our deepest held beliefs based on stories. But good stories may not be true, and they certainly aren’t facts. It is tempting to believe in untruth because we want good stories to be true stories.

It’s a big world. Anecdotes and hearsay stories are not facts. They can’t be verified, and even if true, as the saying goes, data is not the plural of anecdotes. Yes, a true anecdote is a fact. But conclusions regarding how the world works can’t be based on a single fact. We need a wider lens.

I have no doubt that some children have developed autism following a vaccination. But of course many children develop autism when not preceded by a vaccination. And vastly more children don’t develop autism following a vaccination. Correlation does not imply causation (cliche I know, but true).

We can easily jump to conclusions based on our narrow experience of the world. It is easy to think that our little slice is what matters and that the rest of the world looks just like what we have experienced. How arrogant of us to presume that because we are attracted to the opposite sex that the same must be true of everyone! How arrogant to discount the truth that trans people tell of their lives because it is not what we have experienced! How arrogant to believe that blacks are treated fairly by the justice system because it has treated us fairly! But truth is much bigger than our personal experience and it is very presumptuous of us to believe that we are the center of reality.

One fact is not enough. We need to determine truth based upon a universe full of facts.

Credentials matter. The logical fallacy argumentum ad verecundiam (arguing from authority) is when we point to the opinion of an authority as truth by virtue of their status. Logical arguments must stand on their own, and are not true because some third party says so. The problem with this in day-to-day life is that we aren’t all structural engineers, epidemiologists or climate scientists. I can’t replicate NIST’s analysis of the World Trade Center collapse, the CDC’s epidemiological studies of vaccinations or NASA’s climate modelling. So we have to rely on the opinions of authorities. But which ones?

I am an IT strategy consultant in the area of data governance. I spend hours of my life reading dry industry articles, watching boring webcasts, and talking to clients about solutions to their real-world problems. I have specialized because I have no choice. I can’t be of value to clients unless I have the deep knowledge and experience they require. They choose me over competitors because of my credentials and reputation, and as soon as I let up I will be unemployed.

I would never pretend to be an expert outside of my field. To do so would be fraud. And yet anyone with a laptop and wifi connection can advocate for any opinion in any field based on any rationale or none at all. And such is their right. But the Dunning Kruger effect is real. The more one knows about a subject, the more reluctant one is to make bold assertions.

Since I can’t be an expert in all things (I’m lucky if I’m an expert in one), I rely on experts in their fields. But never just a single voice in the wilderness. I look for consensus among authorities. Such a consensus among experts, if not absolute unanimity, exists for 9/11, the safety and necessity of vaccinations, and global warming.

There is an anti-intellectualism in the US and elsewhere that is 180 degrees in opposition to my view on authorities. It seems many people view expertise and education as invalidating their opinions. They believe that experts are somehow “in on it” as part of the establishment. And if many experts agree, then that is viewed as de facto evidence of a conspiracy. The anti-intellectualists are free to choose this as their epistemological foundation, but think about the outcome of this belief: they are forced to rely on those who know the least with opinions that have not been checked or validated by anyone else. They have chosen ignorance over knowledge. Such is their right, but it reflects more on their psychology, in my opinion, than on the subject they are debating.

Truth doesn’t care about us. The US has elected a President who was clearly unqualified, besides being a narcissist, serial sexual abuser and profligate liar. How could this happen? Trump told people what they wanted to hear. A large segment of the US electorate (although not a majority) wanted to believe that trade deals and immigrants have taken their jobs, that a wall would stop illegal immigration, that repealing and replacing Obamacare would give them better and cheaper healthcare, and that the preceding two administrations were “stupid” but Trump alone would solve all their problems. Trump told them exactly what they wanted to hear, and they believed him in spite of all the signs that they were being conned. Most of them still want to believe, even in the face of the gross incompetence of the Trump Administration.

But Trump was lying. (It’s unclear whether consciously or not; he may actually believe his own con.) We tend to believe things that we think should be true, or that we want to be true. But truth, whether in economics, climate, disease or foreign affairs, really doesn’t care what we want to be true.

No one can keep a secret. Lastly, so many conspiracy theories depend on, well, conspiracies. But any theory that depends on large numbers of people keeping secrets defies human nature. Maybe small numbers of conspirators, say a dozen or less, can keep a secret. But to fake the moon landings, or blow up the World Trade Center towers, would require hundreds or thousands of conspirators, any one of which could sell their story for millions if they came clean now. Secret societies controlling the world economic system would require participants in hundreds or thousands of investment banks, exchanges and regulatory bodies. The closest thing to a secret society I can think of are the Scientologists, yet we have hundreds of ex-Scientologists spilling the beans about Xenu, abuse and Tom Cruise and Katy Holmes. Humans are not evolved to keep secrets.

* * * *

So this is my epistemology, or at least part of it. I have not addressed my religious or moral epistemology, which would take another post or ten. Let me just say that once we step beyond the world of empirical facts we enter a completely different set of epistemological guidelines. But in the world of empirical reality, this is how I decide what is true.

December 15, 2009

Is Open Theism’s Cosmology Coherent?

Filed under: Church,Philosophy,Science — Bob Gifford @ 8:45 am

I just completed a Systematics Theology course at Fuller Seminary. Class assignments included a term paper, which I decided to do on the confluence of physics and the theology of divine time, omniscience and providence. It’s a fascinating subject. The term paper had a limit of 10 pages (which I exceeded a tad) or I could have gone on longer. As it was, the limit forced me to be concise and focused.

Click here for a pdf of my term paper.

October 7, 2009

Quote for the Day Year

Filed under: Church,Philosophy — Bob Gifford @ 11:41 am

A Sully quote for the day. Given the name of this blog, I have to pass it along:

“Faith means doubt. Faith is not the suppression of doubt. It is the overcoming of doubt, and you overcome doubt by going through it. The man of faith who has never experienced doubt is not a man of faith,” – Thomas Merton.

June 29, 2008

Niebuhr Predicts the Iraq War

Filed under: Philosophy,Politics — Bob Gifford @ 12:15 pm

I’ve started reading Moral Man and Immoral Society by Reinhold Niebuhr. it was written in 1932, but I am amazed at how incredibly relevant he is to the events of our day. Niebuhr writes*:

The economy of nature has provided that means of defense may be quickly transmuted into means of aggression. There is therefore no possibility of drawing a sharp line between the will-to-live and the will-to-power. Even in the emotions, attitudes of defense and aggression are so compounded that fear may easily lead to courage, and the necessity of consolidating the triumph won by courage may justify new fears.

[The U.S.], seeking to maintain her hegemony in [Iraq], speaks with monotonous reiteration of her need of security. She typifies the human spirit with its curious mixture of fear of extinction and love of power. Power, once attained, places the individual or the group in a position of perilous eminence so that security is possible only by the extension of power. Thus nature’s harmless and justifiable strategies for preserving life, are transmuted in the human spirit into imperial purposes and policies. So inextricably are the two intertwined, that the one may always be used to justify the other in conscious and unconscious deception.

As you may have gathered, Niebuhr was not actually speaking of the U.S. and Iraq, but of France and Europe in the period between the two world wars. But when we look at the original decision to invade Iraq, the Bush doctrine of preemptive attack, or Bush and McCain’s desire to maintain U.S. bases and troops in Iraq indefinitely, Neibuhr’s observation fits like a glove.

So what is Niebuhr’s solution to this human tendency to pursue aggression in the name of self-defense? I don’t know — I haven’t gotten that far yet. But it seems to me that awareness of the problem is the first step towards healing.

* Moral Man and Immoral Society, Reinhold Niebuhr, p. 42

May 26, 2008

The War Prayer

Filed under: Church,Philosophy — Bob Gifford @ 10:56 am

The War Prayer

by Mark Twain

It was a time of great and exalting excitement. The country was up in arms, the war was on, in every breast burned the holy fire of patriotism; the drums were beating, the bands playing, the toy pistols popping, the bunched firecrackers hissing and spluttering; on every hand and far down the receding and fading spread of roofs and balconies a fluttering wilderness of flags flashed in the sun; daily the young volunteers marched down the wide avenue gay and fine in their new uniforms, the proud fathers and mothers and sisters and sweethearts cheering them with voices choked with happy emotion as they swung by; nightly the packed mass meetings listened, panting, to patriot oratory which stirred the deepest deeps of their hearts, and which they interrupted at briefest intervals with cyclones of applause, the tears running down their cheeks the while; in the churches the pastors preached devotion to flag and country, and invoked the God of Battles beseeching His aid in our good cause in outpourings of fervid eloquence which moved every listener. It was indeed a glad and gracious time, and the half dozen rash spirits that ventured to disapprove of the war and cast a doubt upon its righteousness straightway got such a stern and angry warning that for their personal safety’s sake they quickly shrank out of sight and offended no more in that way.

Sunday morning came – next day the battalions would leave for the front; the church was filled; the volunteers were there, their young faces alight with martial dreams – visions of the stern advance, the gathering momentum, the rushing charge, the flashing sabers, the flight of the foe, the tumult, the enveloping smoke, the fierce pursuit, the surrender! Then home from the war, bronzed heroes, welcomed, adored, submerged in golden seas of glory! With the volunteers sat their dear ones, proud, happy, and envied by the neighbors and friends who had no sons and brothers to send forth to the field of honor, there to win for the flag, or, failing, die the noblest of noble deaths. The service proceeded; a war chapter from the Old Testament was read; the first prayer was said; it was followed by an organ burst that shook the building, and with one impulse the house rose, with glowing eyes and beating hearts, and poured out that tremendous invocation

God the all-terrible! Thou who ordainest! Thunder thy clarion and lightning thy sword!

Then came the “long” prayer. None could remember the like of it for passionate pleading and moving and beautiful language. The burden of its supplication was, that an ever-merciful and benignant Father of us all would watch over our noble young soldiers, and aid, comfort, and encourage them in their patriotic work; bless them, shield them in the day of battle and the hour of peril, bear them in His mighty hand, make them strong and confident, invincible in the bloody onset; help them to crush the foe, grant to them and to their flag and country imperishable honor and glory –

An aged stranger entered and moved with slow and noiseless step up the main aisle, his eyes fixed upon the minister, his long body clothed in a robe that reached to his feet, his head bare, his white hair descending in a frothy cataract to his shoulders, his seamy face unnaturally pale, pale even to ghastliness. With all eyes following him and wondering, he made his silent way; without pausing, he ascended to the preacher’s side and stood there waiting. With shut lids the preacher, unconscious of his presence, continued with his moving prayer, and at last finished it with the words, uttered in fervent appeal, “Bless our arms, grant us the victory, O Lord our God, Father and Protector of our land and flag!”

The stranger touched his arm, motioned him to step aside – which the startled minister did – and took his place. During some moments he surveyed the spellbound audience with solemn eyes, in which burned an uncanny light; then in a deep voice he said:

“I come from the Throne – bearing a message from Almighty God!” The words smote the house with a shock; if the stranger perceived it he gave no attention. “He has heard the prayer of His servant your shepherd, and will grant it if such shall be your desire after I, His messenger, shall have explained to you its import – that is to say, its full import. For it is like unto many of the prayers of men, in that it asks for more than he who utters it is aware of – except he pause and think.

“God’s servant and yours has prayed his prayer. Has he paused and taken thought? Is it one prayer? No, it is two – one uttered, the other not. Both have reached the ear of Him Who heareth all supplications, the spoken and the unspoken. Ponder this – keep it in mind. If you would beseech a blessing upon yourself, beware! lest without intent you invoke a curse upon a neighbor at the same time. If you pray for the blessing of rain upon your crop which needs it, by that act you are possibly praying for a curse upon some neighbor’s crop which may not need rain and can be injured by it.

“You have heard your servant’s prayer – the uttered part of it. I am commissioned of God to put into words the other part of it – that part which the pastor – and also you in your hearts – fervently prayed silently. And ignorantly and unthinkingly? God grant that it was so! You heard these words: ‘Grant us the victory, O Lord our God!’ That is sufficient. the whole of the uttered prayer is compact into those pregnant words. Elaborations were not necessary. When you have prayed for victory you have prayed for many unmentioned results which follow victory – must follow it, cannot help but follow it. Upon the listening spirit of God fell also the unspoken part of the prayer. He commandeth me to put it into words. Listen!

“O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle – be Thou near them! With them – in spirit – we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it – for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.

(After a pause.) “Ye have prayed it; if ye still desire it, speak! The messenger of the Most High waits!”

It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.

[See here for some background on this poem.]

December 18, 2007

Haught vs. Pharyngula

Filed under: Church,Philosophy — Bob Gifford @ 8:07 pm

Salon.com has an interview of John Haught, Catholic theologian, devout Darwinian and author of books such as God After Darwin. It is very Polkinghorne-esque.

Haught covers topics such as: the shallow grasp of Christianity by the New Atheists, the compatibility of Evolution and Christianity, the false teleology of scientific materialism, his dissatisfaction with Gould’s non-overlapping magisteria, the correctness but incompleteness of scientific truth, the bankruptcy of the “God of the Gaps”, the inanity of intelligent design and the downright scariness of Mike Huckabee. He touches on some of my favorite authors like Paul Tillich, and some I’m totally unfamiliar with like Teilhard de Chardin and Camus. I found myself nodding in agreement throughout (except for the camera-at-the-resurrection part — I’m still mulling that over).

In short, it’s crack for anyone interested in the intersection of science and theology.

But the really interesting part is the reaction Haught provoked by one of the New Atheists. Pharyngula, aka PZ Myers, has a rather, um, uncharitable post in reply.

[I don’t know] why we still have universities with theology departments, and haven’t razed them to the ground and sent the few remaining rational people in them off to sociology and anthropology departments where their work might actually have some relevance. It’s terribly uncharitable of me, but after reading this interview with John Haught, a Georgetown University theologian, I’m convinced that the discipline is the domain of vapid hacks stuffed full of antiquated delusions.


Every time I read something by one of these credulous apologists for religion, I am further convinced that they are just making stuff up.


This guy is completely batty. If this is an example of theological thinking, I’m entirely justified in dismissing this entire academic discipline — these guys are the equivalent of astrologers, still lurking in the spider-webbed corners of our universities.

I don’t think he likes Haught much.

After reading Haught’s thoughtful, reasoned interview, I was struck by how little Myers actually engages with his arguments. He just kind of dismisses him and the entire field of theology. He counters Haught’s logic with invective and hand-waving, which is odd since Myers is defending the exclusive use of logic against any kind of religious belief. For example:

[From the interview:]

The new atheists don’t want to think out the implications of a complete absence of deity. Nietzsche, as well as Sartre and Camus, all expressed it quite correctly. The implications should be nihilism.

Here we have yet another believer trying to tell us what the logical conclusion of atheism should be: in this case, nihilism. Doesn’t the fact that none of the New Atheists that I know of are nihilists matter? I guess if you’re willing to abandon any requirement for evidence, you can also ignore any evidence that counters your opinion.

So…why aren’t Nietzche and Camus correct that atheism leads to nihilism? Myers doesn’t say.

But Myers really pisses me off when he says this:

I consider the feeble gullibility of, for instance, the average Lutheran church member to be the real problem — that our country and our culture as a whole endorses institutions that encourage credulity in the face of religious baloney. Even if the radical fringe weren’t throwing bombs, I’d still be asking people why the heck they believe in such patent nonsense. [emphasis mine]

Because, of course, I’m one of those average Lutheran church members. For Myers to accuse me of being gullible, after the years I’ve spent thinking, reading, challenging, doubting and rethinking, is incredibly insulting. When Myers accuses me of gullibility, he speaks of that which he does not know. He demonstrates that he is the one unwilling to consider evidence that runs counter to his opinion.

I would be totally fine with atheists and their dismissal of religious belief, except for the underlying authoritarian strain — not only are those religious people horribly wrong, but we have to do something about them! As I quoted above:

we still have universities with theology departments, and haven’t razed them to the ground and sent the few remaining rational people in them off to sociology and anthropology departments where their work might actually have some relevance.

Myers, and the Four Horseman of Atheism (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens) not only disagree with people of faith, they want to eradicate religion as though it were a virus. By all means, disagree with my beliefs, but when you want to impose your beliefs on me, by force if necessary, you’re just another authoritarian. And we already have enough of those on the religious right.

October 21, 2007

Two Quotes

Filed under: Philosophy,Politics — Bob Gifford @ 10:05 pm

A quote for a Sunday evening:

I know what I believe. I will continue to articulate what I believe and what I believe—I believe what I believe is right.

-George W. Bush, 2001

And here’s another quote:

I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.

-Oliver Cromwell, 1650

August 25, 2007


Filed under: Church,Philosophy — Bob Gifford @ 5:20 pm

From Andrew Sullivan:

[C]omplete religious certainty is, in fact, the real blasphemy. As he put it, “We cannot worthily conceive the grandeur of those sublime and divine promises, if we can conceive them at all; to imagine them worthily, we must imagine them unimaginable, ineffable and incomprehensible, and completely different from those of our miserable experience. ‘Eye cannot see,’ says St. Paul, ‘neither can it have entered into the heart of man, the happiness which God hath prepared for them that love him.'”

In that type of faith, doubt is not a threat. If we have never doubted, how can we say we have really believed? True belief is not about blind submission. It is about open-eyed acceptance, and acceptance requires persistent distance from the truth, and that distance is doubt. Doubt, in other words, can feed faith, rather than destroy it. And it forces us, even while believing, to recognize our fundamental duty with respect to God’s truth: humility. We do not know. Which is why we believe,

(Here’s best wishes to Andrew and Aaron on their wedding day.)

August 18, 2007

Opus: Eternally Annoyed

Filed under: Church,Philosophy — Bob Gifford @ 6:47 pm

This week’s Opus (click on the image below to see the whole strip):

August 8, 2007

Credo Quia Absurdum

Filed under: Philosophy — Bob Gifford @ 9:27 pm

From Kierkegaard:

If I am capable of grasping God objectively, I do not believe, but precisely because I cannot do this I must believe. If I wish to preserve myself in faith I must constantly be intent upon holding fast the objective uncertainty, so as to remain out upon the deep, over seventy thousand fathoms of water, still preserving my faith.

As quoted in Sophie’s World (p 379).

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