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Silent3's Journal - Archives
Posted by Silent3 in Religion/Theology
Fri Nov 25th 2011, 02:12 PM
At the risk of wading deep into "tl;dnr" territory (but still brief compared to weightier tomes an the subject of epistemology)...

Like many words, "knowledge" has a variety of meanings and usages. I think if you look at how this word is typically used, however, the core concept is possession of objective truth, possession of factual information. Experience, perception, deduction, intuition, and raw information do not become "knowledge" in any deep sense of that word until they are subjected to some form of objective verification.

I know many people love to treat the notion of objective knowledge as if it were merely "one side of the coin", or worse, some oh-so-terribly limiting and blinding obstacle to supposedly "greater knowledge" and "greater truth", but do those objections stand up well to critical examination, if one strives for a consistent and clear idea of what "knowledge" means?

What happens when you try to get past the promotion of vagueness as a virtue, past carelessly or deliberately slippery word usage, or confusing the flexibility of words with flexibility of the meanings and intents behind those words?

Consider the common phrase, "I thought I knew". When is that phrase used?

Generally it is used when we have taken a statement or idea to be factually true, then that statement or idea is later held up to scrutiny, and under scrutiny the idea fails. We do not treat the failed idea as something which once was knowledge, but no longer is knowledge, we treat it as something which we had mistakenly classified as knowledge, but never was actual knowledge.

Does this distinction which nearly all of us commonly make between real, actual knowledge and mistaken knowledge make sense by any other light than the light of objective evidence? How else can that which is once thought to be knowledge lose that status unless there exists, at least hypothetically if not always in actual practice, a standard by which information can be tested and, when appropriate, falsified?

To the extent that we treat some fairly trivial ideas, thoughts, and claims as knowledge, even when they haven't been subjected to objective verification, when they may in fact not be particularly amenable to objective verification, is in my opinion less an expansion of the domain of knowledge and more a practical concession to the difficulty of obtaining solid verification in some matters, especially when the cost/benefit ratio is too high for verification to be worthwhile or important. It is not an abandonment of the core idea of objective truth.

If knowledge is possession of facts, then what makes a fact a fact? I would suggest that, in hypothetical form, a "fact" is something which is considered definitely and universally true. Facts are things which are not matters of opinion -- even when opinions differ on what is a fact or isn't. For practical purposes, facts can be regarded as statements or claims which can be objectively proven true to whatever degree of proof is appropriate, given the possible consequences of making an error in fact.

One can have knowledge of subjective feelings and experiences. I believe, however, the core meaning of the concept of "knowledge" leaves individual subjective experiences one step removed from being knowledge per se, but rather knowledge that -- knowledge that person X experienced sensation Y.

For example, Alice thinks the room she is in is cold. Bob, in the same room with Alice, thinks the room is warm. The difference in perception is not a difference in fact. A factual accounting of the situation simply requires recognition of the differing perceptions, and recognition of the inexact meanings of words like "cold" and "warm". Given that in most situations there would be little reason for Alice and Bob to falsely or erroneously state their own perceptions, given that each person can generally be regarded as reliable sources of information about their own perceptions, and given that nothing of great importance is likely to hinge on the truth of these matters, provisionally regarding such matters as facts, therefore matters of knowledge, is a completely reasonably thing to do, requiring no concession at all to mystical, non-objective notions about knowledge.

A clear distinction must be made between perception and interpretation of perception. Take for example a common optical illusion. A general inclination to treat a person as a reliable authority on their own perceptions, for instance that one line seems longer than the other, is not the same as a general inclination to believe that one line is actually longer than the other simply because that is what someone claims to perceive.

What about knowledge of logic and mathematics? I won't pretend that this isn't a tricky area of epistemology (people still argue over whether mathematical concepts are invented or discovered) but these subjects still can be said to be objective in that the rules and conclusions of logic and mathematics stand up to rigorous methods of proof that do not depend on anyone's personal subjective opinions or perceptions. You can play around with postulates and premises and get different results, but there are still objective conclusions which derive from well-defined postulates and premises.

I've seen intuition, mysticism, and religious revelation put forth as "ways of knowing", but these are at best sources of raw information which cannot be considered actual knowledge until the information provided is objectively validated. Whether or not such information is compelling and convincing to the individual who receives it is hardly a good reason to water down the core concept of knowledge to include such information, except perhaps in the once-removed sense of acknowledging the personal importance that information has to the individual.

The weakest concept of knowledge, while ironically also the one that can be most compelling to an individual, is that knowledge is simply that which you feel strongly must be true: you know something because, damn it, you KNOW it!

The main thing that I see intuition, mysticism, religious revelation, and "just knowing" have going for them as supposedly reliable sources of knowledge is a "count the hits, ignore the misses" accounting of their success. Intuitions that don't turn out weren't real intuitions. Failed religious revelations weren't real revelations.

Then there is also the fact that much religious and mystical so-called knowledge is carefully designed to be beyond the reach of proof or verification, answering only to the very low standard of "you can't prove me wrong!".

Based on what I've written above, I see no reason to treat an emphasis on a scientific approach to knowledge, and strong doubts concerning the validity of any other approaches, as some sort of terribly unfair limitation or prejudice. Simply expand the idea of the scientific approach to include the logic and mathematics which are the language of science, which certainly takes science beyond the "if you can't see it, hear it, taste it, touch it or smell it" caricature some people seem to love as a favorite straw man, and the scientific approach becomes the only approach that leads to a concept of "knowledge" which is consistent with deep, clear, and meaningful usage of that word.
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Posted by Silent3 in Religion/Theology
Thu Nov 17th 2011, 07:02 AM
Anecdotes have no controls. Anecdotes are subject to biased reporting, such as "counting the hits, ignoring the misses". While scientist don't have to totally disregard anecdotes -- anecdotes can inspire new avenues of research, spur reexamination of old research -- reliable results require data. Obtaining data requires following protocols to reduce (hopefully eliminate) experimenter bias. Obtaining data means counting the misses as well as the hits.

The quantity and quality of data needed to verify a claim with sufficient confidence depends on the nature of the claim. Occam's Razor is important here -- often stated as "the simplest explanation is usually the best", but more accurately, "entities should not be needlessly multiplied".

When it comes to "anecdotes are about 'ghostly visitations'", the problem is not some terribly prejudiced "double standard" in science. First, anecdotes aren't data, and, very consistently, attempts to produce ghostly data under controlled conditions yield negative results. Second, the already known and accepted "entities" of human psychology, particularly the many ways we fool ourselves, misinterpret sensory data, have a bias toward "agency", the way we are prejudiced by existing cultural memes about things like ghosts, etc., are sufficient to explain "ghostly visitations" without invoking new "entities", which would be the supposed ghosts themselves and whatever new physics would be required to explain them.
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Posted by Silent3 in Religion/Theology
Tue Oct 25th 2011, 10:51 AM
This post isn't Religion/Theology per se, but there's been a fair amount of posting in R/T lately with large blocks of text that are really quotations of other people's text, but the quotations aren't clearly marked as such, except for maybe a link following the quoted words to the actual author's original full text.

There's an easy way to quote large blocks of text, something that works a lot better than pairs of quotation marks, or no markings at all:

div class=excerptText you want to quote/div

(If the left and right brackets in the text above look kind of funny, it's because I'm using pictures of those characters rather than the actual characters -- brackets get parsed as HTML markup by DU's posting software, making it difficult to post about posting.)

Using this div/excerpt markup...
...produces text that looks like this.

This is especially good for
blocks of text that take up
multiple lines.
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Posted by Silent3 in Religion/Theology
Mon Oct 24th 2011, 07:32 PM
...is to be so broad in your interpretations of each religion that their mutual contradictions are not significantly greater than their individual internal contradictions. The key is relegating religion to being little more than a very loosely interpreted mystical fashion accessory to a shared, essentially secular morality.

The end result is shaky philosophy and shoddy epistemology, but hey, I guess it beats holy wars.
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Posted by Silent3 in Religion/Theology
Sun Oct 09th 2011, 04:05 PM
It is perhaps true that for some people religious faith helps them to carry out good deeds. It could also be true that for some people there are common personality traits which lead to both good deeds and a tendency to be religious.

Even in the first case, where religion might come first and the good deeds follow, the possibility that what the religion claims is true isn't greatly enhanced by the good deeds of the religion's followers. The analogy I like to use is this: Imagine parents who tell their child that he has to do his homework if he wants Santa to bring presents at Christmas. The child does his homework, Christmas comes, and presents bearing gift tags "From Santa" appear.

The effectiveness of this idea of Santa Claus at getting a good result -- the homework does get done -- has absolutely no bearing on the reality of Santa Claus.
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Posted by Silent3 in Religion/Theology
Sat Sep 24th 2011, 11:42 PM
...life's deeper meaning" in any material in which they can find such meaning. If I dispute what a person claims to have found, however, or dispute the clarity of the way they describe what they've found, that is not an infringement on that person's rights.

Lessons about the human condition can be learned reading Shakespeare. Revelations about the meaning of life can be found watching Star Trek. While some fans of both might take their devotion to these subjects to religious extremes, these subjects are not, however, considered to be actual religions. These things are understood to be fiction, regardless of any broader truths or insights found therein.

Fiction does not cease to be fiction because it contains some truths. Fiction does not cease to be fiction when it inspires compassion and tolerance and understanding. Fiction does not cease to be fiction because people's lives are enriched by it.

I think you want to convince us that religion (Christianity in particular, perhaps) is something grander and deeper and more ennobling than mere fiction, while still not accountable to the drab literalistic demands of scientific accountability or historical accuracy. Further, it appears you want to leave the door open for some people to take the stories of their religious faiths as historical fact because... well, I'm left grasping for a coherent rationale. The diplomatic value of doing this is clear, but is there more to it than that? I doubt you want to wander into the epistemological abyss where every person is entitled not only to their own opinions, but to their own historical facts.

If you want me to believe that religion is grander and deeper and more ennobling than mere fiction, that its truths belong to a special category of truth, I am obviously not convinced. While I do not doubt your sincerity or your good intentions, all I see so far is (probably unconsciously done) special pleading and obfuscation.
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Posted by Silent3 in Religion/Theology
Sat Sep 24th 2011, 04:43 PM
...and even many non-Fundamentalist Christians will tell you that they believe the basics of the Jesus story as historical fact -- not just a story that indirectly relates truths about the human condition, but "photographic records", so to speak, real history.

While Fundamentalists go the extra mile of believing in Noah's Ark and a 6000-year-old Earth, most American Christians I've known aren't eager to dismiss the basic supernatural details of the Jesus story (virgin birth, resurrection, ascension) as mere allegory or poetic truth. Many may believe in the literal truth of miracles attributed to Jesus as well, such as turning water into wine and raising Lazarus from the dead.

Some Bible stories, by the way, even taken as allegory, not fact, are somewhat questionable in their moral truth. In such cases, what truth remains but the truth that at sometime, somewhere, someone or some group of people thought it was moral to, say, feed children to bears for making fun of a bald guy, or perhaps, at least, scare children with stories of a God that does such things to make them behave?

At what point does the "truth" of religion become so abstracted, so generously interpreted, that there's little difference between religion and atheism with poetry?

What purpose does it serve to talk about these different kinds of "truth", without clearly labeling them as different kinds truth, other than perhaps to smooth tensions along the spectrum from literal believers and very abstracted philosophers, quietly leaving each to take "truth" in their own way without ruffling feathers?
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Posted by Silent3 in Religion/Theology
Sat Sep 24th 2011, 02:17 PM
...but you have made a declaration about "true" Christianity. A consequence of this declaration, even if you avoid saying it explicitly, is an inescapable implicit declaration of what isn't true Christianity.

If someone follows a form of Christianity that doesn't match your definition of true Christianity, how can that person be a true Christian? You may diplomatically avoid voicing such formulations, you may attempt to humbly excuse yourself as not worthy to judge, nevertheless, the very act of defining a "true" form of Christianity establishes that there will be true Christians and false Christians. "NTS" wouldn't apply if the only false Christians were Hindu and Muslim, etc., people who wouldn't call themselves Christian anyway, but the resulting category of false Christians which follows from your "true Christianity" is going to end up containing a large number of people who call themselves Christian, but who don't fit your definition of Christian.

Since you declare compassion specifically as the hallmark of "true" Christianity, you are implicitly disavowing people who call themselves Christian who do not act compassionately. Given that, I stand by my call of NTS.

I just flatly disagree that my 3 is epistemological mush. It is a deeply thought out perspective on Biblical literature that has been solid for a long long time.

Suppose I borrowed $100 from you yesterday, saying I'd pay you back today. You ask me about the money today and I tell you I have no idea what you're talking about.

There would be a number of different explanations for this you might consider, but these would be the top three:

(1) I somehow forgot.
(2) You are misremembering what happened.
(3) I'm trying to cheat you.

Unless you're loopier than I imagine, you aren't going to spend a lot of time conceiving of ways that we both have different "personal truths" regarding this matter. You aren't going to give me a break for having a "story" that "my people tell" that somehow changes the truth of whether I borrowed that money from you or not. Even if you're being generous and decide to let the matter slide, it's not going to be because you think we're both living in divergent realities with different actual histories of events.

There either was or was not an historic Jesus of Nazareth born roughly 2000 years ago. He either was or was not born via supernatural means of a virgin mother, he either did or did not rise from the dead after death by crucifixion. The existence of this man and these events would have far greater significance in the scheme of the world than a mere $100. In what kind of surreal reality would the trivial monetary matter be anchored firmly in an objective reality while the story of Jesus inhabits a far fuzzier epistemological space where whether or not you live a virtuous life because of the story or derive a sense of cultural identity from the story has any bearing on the truth of the story?

I don't see any reasonable way that a phrase like "always true but never purely historic" belongs in any solid, defensible epistemology. I can certainly see how it can serve as a diplomatic way of navigating religious and cultural differences, I can even see how, allowing for a bit of poetic license in the use of language, a thing might be considered "true" (scare quotes required) but not historical.

Solid epistemology, however, is not a place for diplomacy or poetic license.
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Posted by Silent3 in Religion/Theology
Mon Sep 19th 2011, 03:00 PM
If you follow a particular religious faith, do the particular teachings and customs of that religion matter to you, or are they just window dressing, with the "real" religion being some difficult to define (or vaguely defined, or undefined) spirituality? Something in between?

Are details even as big as monotheism vs. polytheism vs. non-theistic animism (where the world is filled with "spirits", but none of them are gods) unimportant to you?

If you're a monotheist, do you feel more kinship with practitioners of polytheism than you do with atheists? If so, is it that the polytheists "get it" (whatever "it" is) in a way that atheists don't?

If you're a Christian, is the literal crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus something you view as an historical fact, not mere legend? If you found out that story of Jesus was only a legend, would you be upset? Would your faith be shaken?

If you're a Christian but not a Mormon, are you willing to take the Mormon's belief in Joseph Smith being presented with the Golden Plates as a historical fact?

When I ask a pointed question like this last one, do you bristle at the question itself, considering it either rude or somehow naive, something I wouldn't even ask if I really "understood" religion?

If you are yourself very flexible about the details of of your religion, how much do you think your own flexibility characterizes the majority of religious believers?


Why do I ask?


It's not that I expect a word like "religion" to have a simple and consistent meaning. It's common in human language for words to have multiple means and shades of meaning in different contexts. I can deal with that.

I do, however, expect that in an honest discussion that people either stick to one meaning, or make it clear when they are shifting meanings, and that they don't (consciously or not) shift meanings merely to duck criticism or difficult questions.

One of those things that seems to shift an awful lot, particularly when atheists criticize or question religion, is the importance of the particulars of different religions to the meaning and significance of religion.
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Posted by Silent3 in Religion/Theology
Tue Aug 09th 2011, 07:30 PM
  • Some atheists don't always make the best case they could for atheism.
  • Let's pretend the bad atheist arguments are the only arguments the atheists have, and throw in a "science has all the answers" straw man as a bonus.
  • You can't prove that there isn't a God.
  • Lack of evidence, you see, is a good thing! That's what makes faith faith!
  • The problem of evil... um, no answer to that, just thought I'd bring it up.
  • I've got an intuition, and gosh, it makes me feel so good.
  • No, I'm not being irrational!
  • Some Bible story stuff presented as if it's historical fact.
  • Atheism is faith too, so there!

Behold the awesome power of the theologically trained mind!
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Posted by Silent3 in Religion/Theology
Wed Jul 20th 2011, 01:53 PM
The "gut" and the "heart" benefit hugely from revisionist history.

A decision turns out well: Initial worries and doubts tend to be forgotten.

A decision turns out poorly: Initial worries and doubts are recalled with a vengeance. These doubts are credited to the "gut" or the "heart", and somehow rational thinking gets turned into the villain who caused the trouble.
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Posted by Silent3 in General Discussion
Fri Jul 08th 2011, 02:43 AM
There seems to be a lot of that going around here lately.

Which is not to say some of it might not turn turn out to be justified or true. But still, I wonder what it gains people.

If the huge mass of rage and doom here felt like it was brewing into a movement that could spark positive change, it would be one thing. But it doesn't feel like that to me.

It feels more like, "I'M NOT GOING TO LET MYSELF BE FOOLED! At the first hint of bad news, I want to be first to claim that the hint isn't just a hint, it's the rock-solid proof of the worst that I had imagined is true, and IT'S JUST THE TIP OF THE ICEBERG!"

"I CAN'T BE NAIVE! I WON'T GIVE THE BASTARDS THE CHANCE TO PULL THE WOOL OVER MY EYES! I'm going show 'em I'm onto their tricks! If I'm going to live in a hopeless hell of the weak crushed by the powerful, then DAMN IT! I"M GOING TO HAVE THE SATISFACTION OF HAVING PREDICTED IT!"
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Posted by Silent3 in Religion/Theology
Wed Jun 22nd 2011, 07:56 PM
Where is your God?
Oh, where could He be?
Is He under your hat?
Has He climbed up a tree?

Does He hide behind boulders?
Is He disguised as a flea?
Is He strolling the park
Drinking peppermint tea?

Does he fly through the night
Taking cover at dawn?
Is he prowling with lions
Or running with fawns?

Might he be on a vacation
On Saturn or Mars?
Or perhaps in Malaysia
Out hopping the bars?

Some say He is everywhere
Up, left, and down,
He's off touring the city
While still here in town.

Yet He seems so elusive
Your magical Friend,
Might He be spotted
Just 'round the next bend?
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Posted by Silent3 in Religion/Theology
Mon Jun 13th 2011, 11:26 AM
For some people, it's not enough that we respect another person's right to believe as they wish, they want us to respect those beliefs themselves.

For still yet others, respect for the beliefs of others isn't enough. They actually seem to want us, even expect us, to have a warm, fuzzy, joyful feeling about those beliefs and the act of believing, sort of a "Isn't it wonderful they've found something to believe!" reaction.

While I realize that many people find comfort and a sense of purpose in their lives through religious and spiritual beliefs, religion and "spirituality" (in the mystical/supernatural sense) are hardly the only paths to improving one's life. The ends do not justify the means. My consideration for what a person gets out of a belief system is not isolated from consideration of the means by which they get it.

I personally value truth over comforting illusions. I consider religion at best to be a comforting illusion. Where should the source of joy for me be in thinking about someone else giving themselves over to comforting illusions?

One explanation I'd expect from the School of Squishy Epistemology would go something like this: "We all have our own truths! We should rejoice when someone finds Their Truth!"

I'll save a more long-winded explanation for later, if necessary, but let it suffice for now to say that it is my opinion that such thinking requires a very weakened, practically useless definition for the word "truth", one that overlaps far too much with "perspective" and "bias" to be useful.

Any other kind of happiness I can think of deriving from knowing someone else "believes" seems condescending to me, like the kind of happiness one might feel seeing a child having fun with a make-believe game, a sentiment that seems inappropriate to apply to a mature, competent adult.

By the way, none of what I'm saying here has a thing to do with thinking I'm absolutely right, thinking someone else is absolutely wrong, or any other absolutism. Why should the distant theoretical possibility that a fundamentalist Christian or a worshiper of Zeus might turn out to be correct make me any happier that people adopt such belief systems?
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Posted by Silent3 in General Discussion
Sun May 01st 2011, 08:17 AM
You're throwing out examples of what you think is over the top, but not getting at where the line is drawn. "Need" is a much trickier concept to pin down than many people think, especially to distinguish "need" from "merely want".

It's usually assumed that "need" includes being able to survive, but even that can be questioned. Do all of us really need to live? If the need to live is accepted, then how long and how healthy? Were people 100 or 1000 or 10000 years ago getting what they "needed" or not? Does the existence of modern medicine supply a "need", or create a "want"?

Even setting aside such basics, and getting into territory closer to where most people would start to argue about what's needed or not, it's too easy to substitute one's personal tastes and values for a fair and unbiased standard of demarcation. Personally, I love well-made examples of technology like smartphones and HDTVs, but I sneer at a lot of clothing sold these days as frivolous, or just plain stupid. While I can admit that neither is absolutely needed, I consider a lot of technology a better value for the dollar, and much less likely to be a matter of advertiser-manipulated desire, than I consider most fashion, with clever marketing convincing hordes of young people to turn themselves into a walking billboards for Hollister or the like.

While I'm sure there are people who buy HDTVs mostly as status symbols, I personally wanted HDTV well before HDTV was even available. No advertising was needed to convince me I wanted HDTV. Since the time I was a kid in the 70s and tried to project the image from a 19" color TV onto a wall to make a bigger picture, I knew I wanted better technology than existed at the time. By the early 80s I knew what terms like "lines of resolution" meant, I knew (and was appalled by) the way color was encoded in an American NTSC video signal. No marketing campaign was required to make me want something a lot better.

What I think you're missing is this:

(1) Lives where nothing but our barest survival needs are met would hardly be worth living. Even though there can be a lot of argument about how far and in what ways beyond barest survival you need to go to make life desirable and worthwhile, most people don't merely "want" more than barest survival, they feel a need for at least a little something more, or else they'd feel they might as well just die and get the tedium and struggle of life over with.

(2) While we certainly are manipulated by advertising, even in the absence of advertising people will, all by themselves, come up with things they wish they had that don't yet exist, will start desiring things they hadn't desired before when they learn that those things do exist, and desire things that other people have that they can't afford. It's not as if the basic human condition is contently living like an extremely ascetic order of monks until the evil advertisers come along and upset some naturally-occurring spartan state of bliss.
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