How do I know what to believe?

Lost and Confused SignpostMark Twain once said that there are two types of people, those who read the newspaper and those who don’t.  About these two types he said the following:

“If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you’re mis-informed.”

Therein lays the dilemma of the 21st Century.  We are surrounded by Big Data.  Everywhere we look we find facts, opinions, statistics, surveys, scientific studies, research and think tanks.  The airwaves bring us 24/7 talking heads, academic experts, on-the-spot journalists, interviews with eye-witnesses, interviews with people who were standing nearby, interviews with relatives, interviews with friends, interviews with deceased friends. J  Anyone who might have remotely known anything about the subject or situation will be brought in to give their opinion.  Eventually, some of these opinions, facts, experiences, experts etc. will produce a book, or documentary on the subject.  In this morass of information, how can we sift the truth from the lies?  How do we know what or who we can trust?  How do we know what to believe?

Just for a factoid:  I went into the advanced search on Amazon Books and typed O. J. Simpson into the “Keywords” and then selected “Biographies” under subject.  There were 1,769 books written about O. J. Simpson by friends, relatives, acquaintances and hanger-on’s.  Of course, even Simpson got into the act with a few books.   Perhaps one book no one should miss is the one written by O. J’s dog (named Kato D’ Akita).  The book blurb promises:

“Kato, the proud, purebred Akita dog, has steadfastly maintained his silence over what he saw on the terrible night of the killings of Nicole Brown Simpson, former wife of O.J. Simpson, and Ron Goldman.  Now, lured by a multi-million dog-bone advance, Kato barks out what REALLY happened on that windy night outside the home of Nicole.  Kato also comments bitterly on the human foibles he saw going on around him-the aimless sexual couplings, the fervid rush to golf on Sunday morning, which Kato thought was a religious service, and the many women friends that O.J. juggled in the months leading up to the killings.”

The author of this book no doubt wanted to inject a little levity into the morass of books written about O. J. Simpson and his trial.

How do we know what to believe?  How do we know who to believe?  Do even dogs tell the truth these days?   A number of years ago, I came across a philosophy text which described four ways by which humans try to discern the truth and find answers to the questions of the universe.  Since then, I have found other writers and philosophers who describe anywhere from one to ten ways of knowing what is true.  These include the following:

  • Emotion
  • Faith
  • Imagination
  • Authority
  • Intuition
  • Language
  • Memory
  • Reason
  • Tradition
  • Empiricism/sensory data/experience

 The majority of experts on the subject usually list four major ways of knowing as:

  1. Empiricism/experience
  2. Reason
  3. Authority
  4. Intuition

To this list I would also include Tradition as an important method that is often used by people to find out what or who to believe.  Thus, for the purposes of this blog, I will talk about Five Methods of Knowing or Believing.  These will include:

  1. Empiricism/experience
  2. Reason
  3. Authority
  4. Intuition
  5. Tradition

Each method has pro’s and con’s.  No one method is full proof.  Each has disadvantages and advantages.  Making our task more difficult is the fact that the various methods are relatively independent.  You cannot just take and blend each or mix and match each and get a stronger result.  If you accept Authority as your mode of believing, you may be relatively immune to other modes of knowing such as Experience or Reason.   For instance, many Catholics believe that the Pope is infallible and thus accept what he says as the “Truth.”  Appeals to Reason or Tradition will have little impact on a Catholic who is convinced that the Pope is infallible.  Many people listen to Rush Limbaugh each week and take what he and other talk show hosts say as the 100 percent bona-fide truth.  Appeals to scientific research or logic will make little difference to these devotees of radio talk shows

A good question which I have ignored up to this point is; are knowing and believing the same?   Or we could put it another way, what is the difference, if any, between knowing and believing?  Endless debates could ensue over this question and its ideological distinctions.  I think that in order to believe something I must first “know” it.  However, I can know something without believing it.  For instance, my sister tells me that she has won the lottery.  I now know that she thinks she has won the lottery, but my natural skepticism stops me from believing it.  Believing anyone’s assertions rests on either being able to validate their assertions or simply trusting in what they say.  If I am unwilling to do either, then belief remains absent.  That is because belief carries with it the assumption of validation or trust that I have noted above.  Thus belief must follow knowing but knowing does not necessitate belief.

I can of course be wrong in my beliefs if my assumptions about what I think I know are wrong.  Thus, if I trust in the wrong authority or wrong facts or any of the various ways of knowing are compromised by errors or fallacies then I can come to believe the wrong things.  This is a very important observation because it is the foundation for errors, arguments and illegitimate conclusions.  If I trust the wrong method of knowing or if my method of knowing is somehow compromised by errors or bias, then my set of beliefs can be 100 percent wrong.  Now let us examine each way of knowing in some detail to see why no single way is infallible and that there are pros and cons to each way of knowing.

1.  Empiricism/Experience. 

I put my hand in the fire and it hurt, I won’t do that again.  I trusted you and you cheated on me, I won’t trust anyone again.  I lost a lot of money playing the slot machines and I won’t be gambling ever again.  Many say experience is the best teacher.  Dr. W. E. Deming always said “Experience without theory teaches nothing.”  Many managers have subscribed to a management theory called MBWA, or Management by Walking Around.  Others have called this, Management by Wandering Around.  Dr. Deming always said, if you don’t have a theory you are just bothering your employees by your MBWA.

Some say “experience is the best teacher.”  However as with all modes of knowing, there are pros and cons.  You cannot experience all life has to offer and some experiences may very well kill you.  You can learn a great deal from your experiences if you survive and if as Deming notes, you find the proper theory to address your experience.  However, experiences can become roadblocks to learning and growing if they imprint indelible memories on your mind that you are unwilling to challenge or go beyond.  Stereotypes and biases are generally rooted in limited experiences and eventually dominate our thoughts and behaviors.  Racism, homophobia, sexism and many other prejudices may grow out of a limited set of experiences that we then extrapolate to the whole world.

2.      Reason/Logic/Science

Spock would have said that the only way of knowing is by logic, reason and facts.  You put 1+1 together and it equals 2.  You make deductions from evidence that lead to incontrovertible truths.  Scientific studies, research and data point the way to absolute knowledge or do they?  In a day when one study contradicts another study, when one scientist disputes another scientist and when research findings continually reverse themselves, can we really rely on facts, evidence and scientific research to point out the truth?  Obviously, much of the public does not.  Intellectuals, professors and scientists are held in pretty low esteem by a large section of the population.   Few believe the pronouncements from the Olympic heights of the University Ivory Towers and can you blame them?   One day eggs are bad for you, the next day they are good.  One day cholesterol is bad, the next day it’s good.  One day, large amounts of protein are good for you and the next day, you need to eat more carbohydrates.

It has been said that man is a rational animal. All my life I have been searching for evidence which could support this.”  — Bertrand Russell

The rational man has often been considered the epitome of humanity, the individual who can divorce emotions from reason and make judgments based on logic and not feeling.  There are many jokes about our inability to do this, but the value is still extolled of reason and logic over emotion and feeling.  The problem lies in the underlying assumptions that govern the final product.  For instance, a jury is supposed to base its decision on logic and facts, but its facts are limited and sometimes fallible.  All science and research is based on a limited set of facts which have varying degrees of reliability and validity.

The precision of our judgments notwithstanding, they are often based on inputs of dubious reliability.   Take any recent court case that you can think of and you will find that the truth is never as simple as it seems at first.  Furthermore, one has only a limited time frame in which to uncover and study any facts.  There is never enough time to study all the facts that could potentially be uncovered and there is never enough time to study the facts that are uncovered.  We live in a world limited by the dimension of time.  While the constitution promises any accused the right to a speedy and impartial trial, the notion of speedy can be counterproductive to finding the truth.  The idea of impartial is a fiction that exists only in the ideal.  Finding a scientist, jury, doctor or lawyer that is impartial would be like finding a needle lost in the galaxies.

Facts, logic and reason have the virtue of objectivity and exclusion of emotions.  However, they are limited by factors of bias, time, quality of research and validity of data.  No perfect data set exists and no perfect human exists to interpret such a data set even if it did exist.  The individual who would strictly base their beliefs on science and data would be no further ahead than the individual who relied solely on intuition or authority.

3.     Authority

God told me that’s how I know.  The Pope is infallible so he can’t be wrong.  Rush Limbaugh always tells the truth.  My country right or wrong!   Unthinking fealty?  Unthinking  patriotism?   But if you can’t trust the President, who can you believe?  Why would God lie to me?  Who should I believe if not the Pope?

We elect, promote, hire and support “higher authorities” as our leaders because we are willing to suspend our belief in ourselves and hope that someone else out there might be closer to the truth than we are.  In essence, we transfer our faith in ourselves to a faith in others.  The pros of this position lay in the recognition that we do not have all the answers and that there are many others out there who have a better chance of grasping the truth than we do.  If you can’t believe God, who can you believe?

On the other hand, the world is full of uninformed, misinformed and simply mistaken people.  Many of them are in positions of authority.  Authorities are often no less biased than anyone else.  Politicians all have an ax to grind or they would not be in politics.  If you think the President or the Pope has all the answers, you must believe that they as human beings are infallible and omnipotent.  Since most Presidents and Popes are now buried, the statistics would seem to support their more mundane alliance with humanity.   A humanity that is often prejudiced, wrong and unenlightened.

God however is another story.  By some definitions, God is simply “Omniscience.”   By such a definition, God would have to know everything.  Even if we accept this idea, there is still a problem with the “Truth” received from God.  The problem however does not lie with God the Omniscient Speaker but Man the Receiver.  As any communications course will teach you, there is always a great deal of static between a speaker and a receiver.  God is the speaker and humans the receivers.  Humans do not always hear things clearly.  There is also the element of cognitive bias that all human receivers add to any intended message.  Thus, if God were speaking to you, you would have two basic problems:

  1.  Was his message distorted?   Did you hear him clearly?
  2. How do you interpret his message?  Is it really unambiguous or are you biasing his message with your own preconceptions?

Those who claim to have infallible information from God concerning “Truth: have an obligation to satisfy the above two constraints before expecting the rest of the world to truly believe that they know what God wants.

“If one has all the answers to all the questions, that is the proof that God is not with him.” — Pope Francis

4.     Intuition

Some people claim to know things by gut feeling or instinct.  In addition to our five senses which give us data about the world, many people believe in a sixth sense which they feel communicates information about the world to them.  This information does not take place in any visible manner and thus many people remain skeptical about intuition and other metaphysical ways of knowing such as telepathy and clairvoyance.

“Intuition provides us with views, understandings, judgments, or beliefs that we cannot in every case empirically verify or rationally justify.  For this reason, it has been not only a subject of study in psychology, but also a topic of interest in various religions and esoteric domains, as well as a common subject of New Age writings. The right brain is popularly associated with intuitive processes such as aesthetic or generally creative abilities. Some scientists have contended that intuition is associated with innovation in scientific discovery.”  —- Wikipedia

The pros of intuition as a means of knowing include the possibility of knowing things that sense data or facts and empirical evidence cannot demonstrate.  Given the limits to science and observation as ways of knowing, this single pro is extraordinarily alluring and powerful.  There are those who seem to rely almost exclusively on intuition as a means of knowing.  The dangers to such reliance are prodigious.  For instance, what if everyone simply chose to believe what their intuition told them to believe?  How many people would accept ideas and actions that the rest of the world had no way to validate or verify?  If trust is a precursor to believing and knowing, then any knowledge based on intuition would simply assume that everyone must trust everyone else.  My intuition would be as valid as your intuition.  Standards, common facts and most of science would be rendered useless since all knowing is now personal and subjective.

5.     Tradition

My fifth method of knowing comes from an article that I read many years ago in a philosophy book on ways of knowing.  The author included four ways of knowing and one of these was tradition.  I feel that if we are going to limit the discussion to the “most” important or most common ways of knowing that Tradition belongs in our list.

Whenever I think of the word tradition, I hear refrains from Fiddler on the Roof (Hyperlinked to the song here)

Who, day and night, must scramble for a living,
Feed a wife and children, say his daily prayers?
And who has the right, as master of the house,
To have the final word at home?
The Papa, the Papa!  Tradition.
The Papa, the Papa!  Tradition.

Tradition has been relied upon for centuries as a way of knowing and believing.  In many societies, the methods of living, loving and dying have been predicated on centuries old ways of doing things that have been passed down from one generation to the next.   When Tevye says “You may ask, how did these traditions get started?”  He replies:  “I’ll tell you.  I don’t know.”  Such is the way of tradition that the basis for most traditions becomes lost in antiquity.  No one knows or really cares how the tradition got started.

The pros of tradition as a means of knowing depend on its robustness and resiliency.  Any means of knowing that can pass down useful knowledge for centuries is extraordinarily powerful.  Stories, metaphors, tales, custom and habits become enshrined as the way things are done.  They are the way they have always been done and these methods may have worked for decades, centuries or perhaps millenniums.  Few could dispute the value of such traditions.

Conversely, traditions can become strictures that strangle growth and progress.  “We have always done it that way” can be an excuse for a failure to find new ways or better ways of doing things.  Progress depends to a large extent on ignoring or even flaunting traditions.   You cannot go into the future with one foot still stuck in the past.  How do we know what traditions to let go of and what traditions to hold onto becomes a major cultural dilemma?  No simple formulas or answers exist to guide one through the maze.  In many ways, the disagreements between liberals and conservatives all pivot around this central question.  Liberals tend to want progress and to want to let go of the past, while conservatives want to hold onto traditions and time honored protocols.

Ut cognoscatis et credatis

All humanity is on a never ending quest for meaning in life.  We dispute our ideas of meaning based on what we perceive, what we know and what we believe.  Ideology is the basis for all disputes and dissension in the world.  What I know and believe is not consistent with your views.  What actions I take are based on my knowledge and beliefs about the world.  When these are in conflict with what others perceive as truth and knowledge, the outcome is often violence.  Humans cannot change their very nature but they can change the basis upon which they make their decisions and judgments.  The basis for truth and believing can be altered and reconsidered.  No one has to rely only on one means of knowing or perceiving the world.

In fact, anyone who does rely only on one means of knowing and believing is like someone who uses only one sense to perceive the world.  IF we have eyes, ears and nose, we use them all to guide us in the world.  It only makes sense to use as many modes of knowing as we can before we make a decision.  Furthermore, it must be understood and accepted that no single mode is infallible.  No single mode leads unalterably to the truth.  No single mode will always be right.  No single mode is perfect.

The wise person will ask themselves what and how have they arrived at their version of the truth?  What mode has informed their opinion?  Would other modes lead to different assumptions and different truths?  What biases exist in their ways of knowing?

Socrates had one day asked the Oracle at Delphi who was the wisest man alive and the Oracle had proclaimed that Socrates was.  Socrates could not accept this because he realized and accepted that he was mostly ignorant about the world.  So Socrates decided he would try and find out if anyone knew what was truly worthwhile in life, because anyone who knew that would surely be wiser than him.  He set about questioning everyone he could find, but no one could give him a satisfactory answer.  Instead they all pretended to know something they clearly did not.

Finally he realized that the Oracle might be right after all.  He was the wisest man alive because he alone was prepared to admit his own ignorance rather than pretend to know something he did not.

“The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers, he’s one who asks the right questions.”  ― Claude Lévi-Strauss

An excellent summary of the pros and cons of four of the above ways of knowing can be found at:  WAYS OF KNOWING,  a handout for use with chaplaincy research students — Chaplain John Ehman

Time for Questions:

What do you know?  How do you know things?  What is your preferred mode of knowing?  Do you ever rely on other modes for your truths about the world?  Which others do you use?  What do you think are the pros and cons of your modes of knowing?  What other modes could you use?  What stops you from using them?  Are you relying too much on one mode and ignoring other possible ways of knowing?  Are you too sure of your truths?  Are you the wisest man/woman in the world?

Life is just beginning.

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