Questionable Motives

June 8, 2011

Is it true? How do we know?

Filed under: Atheism,authority,belief,methodological naturalism,Science — tildeb @ 10:36 am

These two simple questions sit atop the watershed dividing the claims of theists from the criticisms of atheists.

If the first question is to have any merit and respect independent of who attempts to answer it, then the second question matters a very great deal. It is here in the epistemology of informing an answer where one faces a stark choice: one can either accept that belief based on some self-proclaimed authority is somehow sufficient or it is not.

If it is sufficient, then the first question Is it true doesn’t matter; what matters is adhering to the belief, in the case of theism by submitting to authority. This is the epistemological basis of theism: faith-based belief, and it is this same engine that drives belief in all woo.

If it is not sufficient, then what is true must be revealed some other way, not by authority but by a trustworthy method where the consistency and reliability of the results are the measurement. This is the basis of good science:  methodological naturalism (MN), with four centuries of spectacular results.

The two positions cannot be accommodated because the epistemologies are in direct conflict. And this is revealed very clearly when claims of what’s true in nature based on religious authority conflicts with the findings from MN. One of them must yield, but which one?

In considering this choice – because it really is a choice to be made – I ask why should we pay any attention at all to the religious authority if we know ahead of time that its methodology does not value what IS true but merely BELIEVED to be true?

Many argue that pointing out this conflict is rude and that it detracts from slowly and carefully separating individuals from their fantastical beliefs, that it is counter-productive to challenge believers in such an uncompromising way. My response is that reality (what’s true) is a pretty harsh place to begin with and the sooner we come to terms with that fact, the better off we’ll be coping with what IS real (like rapid climate change due to human activities that increases global warming) rather than diverted by those who insist that reality is determined by what is BELIEVED to be true (global warming is all a hoax). In addition, I think that if one honestly cares about what’s true (Are we really screwing up our own climate?), then pointing this out is a very powerful tool of deconversion (See this week’s series on TVO about energy, power, and ecology – and the key question raised at the 27 minute mark by Robin Batterham about what it may take to get angry enough to actually force energy policy change).

Writer Paula Kirby agrees. In her latest article, she describes exactly this process she underwent decoupling her mind from the grip of belief to respecting what is true. And she simply asked that second question and attempted to answer it honestly.

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