Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Saying You "Know" Something to be True.-- II

As I said in my last blog, the hallmark of someone who can think at a high level is an ability to distinguish assertions that express testable claims and knowing what evidence is and is not relevant to testing such claims. If the person can also conjure up from his or her imagination some novel thesis that is testable, all the better. The fact is that the percentage of people who can distinguish testable claims from nontestable ones and who know what evidence is relevent to determining the truth of such claims is not very large if my experience in academia is any guide. This is the toughest thing college students are asked to master and not a lot of them do.

By now your local newspaper will have printed a story about a priest in Italy being sued by someone for claiming that Jesus Christ lived. The specific charges were made because of two Italian laws: “abuse of popular belief” in which someone fraudulently deceives people; and “impersonation” in which someone gains by attributing a false name to someone." Of course the suit will go nowhere. But it is interesting to look a bit at claims of the form, "I know that X lived."

In this article the atheist plaintiff argues that the evidence for the existence of Jesus Christ does not stand up to scholarly analysis. One Professor Appleby puts his finger on a key issue.

R. Scott Appleby, a professor of church history at the University of Notre Dame, concurs. There's “no real doubt” that Jesus existed, he said.

“But what Jesus of Nazareth did and what he means is a different question,” Mr. Appleby said. “But on the question of the existence, there is more evidence of the existence of Jesus of Nazareth than there would be for many other historical people who actually existed. Not only did Jesus actually exist, but he actually had some kind of prominence to be mentioned in two or three chronicles.”

Prof. Appleby is quite right in saying that the proposition that Jesus of Nazareth existed is easier to prove than that most other people living at the time existed. And, Prof. Appleby is also right in saying that the assertion hat Jesus of Nazareth existed is not the same thing as asserting that Jesus Christ existed. As he notes, reference to this man in various texts provides evidence supporting the claim that Jesus of Nazareth existed. The claim that Jesus Christ lived would also be an empirical claim if we specified the properties this person had and these properties were empirical in nature.

When we talk about Jesus Christ existing we are talking about someone who was seen walking on water and turning water into wine and who was crucified and a few days later rose from the dead, among many other things. To prove that all of these claims about the historical Jesus of Nazareth are true, we have to have evidence independent of that provided by the Bible. Many of us learned to sing “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Who knows how much damage that verse did to the ability of Christians to think clearly about their faith.

Over and over throughout my life, I have run into people who happily assert that they know that there is a God (Jesus's God Father). My response has always been that they can't know this; at best they can simply think that there is a God. The proposition "God exists" isn't an empirical claim, which is to say, isn't a testable claim until we specify the properties God is supposed to have. Moreover, these properties must themselves be empirically determinable. It is interesting how few such properties are empirically determinable.

Propositions like "God is the entity that created the universe" cannot be determined to be true without saying exactly what this means. Someone might say that prior to the existence of the visible universe there was nothing but energy and God was an extraordinarily powerful, isolated bundle of energy that was sentient in nature and further that this bundle of energy turned much of the rest of the energy that existed at the time into matter and in the process caused a great explosion (the Big Bang). I hope you are getting the point by now. The claim that God exists isn't an empircal claim though it looks like one because it is simply too imprecise to be tested. Ditto with the claim that Jesus Christ (as opposed to the historical Jesus) existed.

Perhaps knowing that they can't prove that God exists using respectable methods, we find people saying things like "I know in my heart that there is a God." This sort of claim seems to be encouraged by the Bible. I found a web site citing Jeremiah 29:13-14 as saying "You will seek me and find me; when you seek me with all your heart, I will be found by you." This "knowing in my heart" seems to be a very popular epistemological method. Consider Ronald Reagon's very stupid claim "I know in my heart that man is good" and check out this Google search result for more instances of people knowing things in their hearts. Of course, the phrase "know in one's heart" is a totally nonsensical concept. The heart, which has some very nice properties, is not involved in thinking except through supplying oxygen and nutrients to the brain. Ditto with "I know intuitively that there is a God." If my Google searchis reliable evidence, the phrase "know intuitively" is very commonly used, probably by people who probably wouldn't have a clue how to prove something empirically. Claims of the form, "I know there is a God," usually come down to knowing this in one's heart or knowing it intuitively. I would be delighted if readers came up with some other nonsensical "ways of knowing things." Gut knowledge is one. There will be more. The web site that provided the Jeremiah quotation uses the "hard to believe that" mode of argument. This is the mode of argument behind the nonempirical nontheory of Intelligent Design.

We all marvel at the universe. If this universe really was created by a God, whatever that means, I would be pretty pissed at him/her/it. Given that faster than the speed of light travel is out of the question, we will never be able to visit another habitable planet, much less one with sentient life. In fact, communication with life on another planet is nigh on to impossible. Suppose there were a planet 20,000 light years away from Earth who are exactly as intelligent as us and we determine this because our SETI program has found an interpretable message from such "people" fully describing them and the planet they live on that includes a request that we do the same. Sadly, our reply might never be heard since, being no more intelligent than us, they will very probably have destroyed their planet, something we are hell-bent on doing. I am pissed that we can't travel to other habitable planets. So, to compensate for this, I watch Stargate SG-1 each week for a fix. It, along with the two shows after it, should help to relax people who do hard empircal thinking during the preceeding week and need relief.

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Blogger The Language Guy said...

Sorry, j_g, you have just given the Bible a pass no matter how defective it might be and that is question begging of the worst sort -- cite it to back up a claim and where it doesn't give it a free pass. The notion of "knowing in one's heart" extends obviously to much more than asserting that God exists, as the Reagan quote makes clear. You're not saying "the spirit" covers this Reagan claim as well surely. Fortunately our legal system does not allow jurors to convict because they know in their hearts the person is guilty which isn't to say that jurors don't do just that on many occasions.

5:45 PM

Blogger Larry Kollar said...

I hope there's nothing wrong with saying, "I believe" though. The evidence I have of God working in my life could be explained (or explained away) as coincidence.

The problem is, and perhaps there will be a part III where you touch on this, is that people have been so conditioned to think image is reality that (for many) believing and knowing are synonymous.

12:09 AM

Blogger IbaDaiRon said...

Not to gang up on you or anything, j_g, but I feel you're conflating the meanings of "spirit" in your first paragraph. The "spirit of the law" surely refers to the original intention thereof, not to some "legal spook". (BTW, there is yet, to my knowledge, no empirical evidence for the existence of any "spirit", human, divine, or legal.) To take a Biblical law as an example, the intention of "Honor thy father and thy mother" is probably to motivate people to love (and obey?) the two human beings that gave them life and nurtured and raised them, to acknowledge and respect that sacrifice; but only a(n insane) literalistic "letter of the law" interpretation would enforce this in the case of child abusers, right? This difference between "spirit" and "letter" is why we have a Supreme Court (to interpret what the law intends given what it says, its history and the situation when it was created, etc.). For secular laws at least; would there were equal recourse with respect to religious law!

Curiously, I find "I am...not a Bible scholar but I know a few" to be somewhat less convincing than "I am not a doctor, but I play one on TV." : )

12:53 AM

Blogger IbaDaiRon said...

Actually, such a rock would prove to be rather strong scientific evidence, if it could be shown that it wasn't a stunt by some fundamentalists with their lips to the administration's ears who had thereby gained secret access to NASA and a shuttle or rocket. The non-combustion of the note during reentry would itself be miraculous proof of...something!

And non-belief could no longer possibly be an option for someone thus "hit on the head": they'd be dead and either would "know" the truth firsthand, or be beyond caring.

LG: Forgot to mention this earlier: I used to be an SG fan, too, until it became clear that the gate is just a glorified version of the Star Trek transporter and therefore suffers from the same theoretical/technological difficulties (near instantaneous analysis and reproduction of the quantum states of trillions of atoms) and philosophical quandaries. (The famous line should instead have been "Disintegrate me where I stand, Scotty, and reintegrate a copy using totally unrelated matter/energy that will perceive itself as a continuation of me." Not nearly as catchy, eh?) I still watch, but this basic flaw kinda spoils it for me.

5:01 AM

Blogger Mr K said...

Hey, wormholes are sort of sound theoretical things, last time I checked- a loophole around speed above that of light.

Frustratingly I wrote another massive comment and it did not upload- I think I'm closing this box before it uploads or something.

I can't believe that anyone believes in the literal God, because he really is a right bastard. He is mean, cynical, backstabbing, and changed his mind frequently on what is right and wrong.

I think belief in the existence of God is not a harmful thing necessarily, and not one that is arguable. The problem comes is when people use that to justify other beliefs. Homosexuals are evil, some might cry. Why? Because the bible says so. And the argument ends there, because theres nothing left, other than to point out that is highly doubtful that the bible is the literal word of God, and is at least heavily interpreted by man.

There is a section in leviticus, the same section which condemns homosexuality, in which it says that any man who lies with a woman during his period will be unclean for 90 days. The most fascinating thing about a lot of christian fundementalists is just how selective they are at following God's word. Because the old testemant is disgustingly sexist and violent, and not all of it, not most of it, is renoucned in the new testemant.

8:59 AM

Blogger Mrs. Geezerette said...

Tracie Lee Dean went on gut feeling (gut knowledge) when she reported to authorities what she suspected was a child abuse situation involving a 3 year old girl who Dean had encountered in a convenience store. Here is, hopefully, a working link to that story.
Gut Feeling

I saw Dean interviewed. She could not explain exactly what it was that caused her to think the little girl was being abused.

Isn't a gut feeling the same thing as intuition? And isn't intuition a mental faculty of sorts? LG, I would like to know your thoughts on this.

12:19 AM

Blogger IbaDaiRon said...

SusieQ, I am not the language guy but I've been confused for one near a TV...one that was showing an interview with Ms Dean on CNN, actually, if that helps?

Even though they may never reach the level of conscious perception, I think we are sensitive to many of the minutiae of our physical surroundings, especially those which concern social interactions such as subtle changes in expression and body language. We may not be able to isolate such "inputs" (put our finger on just what it was that led us to a given conclusion), but they still end up getting added in and processed anyway. I think the explanation for a lot of so-called intuition, especially in this case, lies along these lines.

In the interview I saw, Dean specifically mentioned noticing the vacant look in the little girl's eyes. I imagine she saw and unconsciously remembered a lot of other details about the girl's appearance and her interactions with the man and woman who had abducted and were abusing her, and that these slowly percolated their way towards conscious recognition in the days that followed, gradually increasing her certainty that something was terribly wrong.

Of course I'm way out on a limb here and this isn't something I've really looked into...just a gut feeling. ; )

3:28 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Gut feelings and instincts that some state of affairs might be true -- that somone is abusing a child for instance -- are totally unreliable. When they turn out to be correct, we feel we have evidence that the feelings or instincts are reliable. When they turn out to be incorrect, we tend not to take equal note of that and so we go on feeling that there is something to gut feelings and instincts.

In some cases we actually do have evidence supporting some gut feeling or instinct, but the evidence is not something one could take to law enforcement officials -- there would, for instance, be no probable cause for a search warrant to see, for instance, if the person had lots of kiddie porn in magazines and on his computer. Still that evidence is not worth nothing. Its value is just difficult to assess. Suppose then that the guy is caught red handed. You then might say, I had a feeling he was a pedophile. The thing is that gut feelings or instincts are not proof of anything but that doesn't mean that they are always worth nothing. Sometimes the are and sometimes they are not. Cops with a well-honed sense of what is and is not suspicious behavior in a given context opperate on them all the time. They are surely wrong a lot of the time. But they are sometimes right.

8:50 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Idadiron, I replied to SusieQ before reading what you wrote. I think you said what I was trying to say better than I did. I also failed to reply specifically to her question: not there is no mental faculty of intuition per se. Our intuitions are simply judgments of some sort that have no special intellectual status. Parents sometimes get the feeling that something is wrong with a kid who is away from home. When they are wrong, they let it slip from memory. When they are right, they tell everyone that they knew something was wrong. Only the confirming instances are noted.

9:13 AM

Blogger Mrs. Geezerette said...

I learned something interesting recently about intuition. In the field of nursing and patient care, it appears that an approach has emerged in recent years that incorporates both empirical knowledge, which provides the framework for the nursing plan, and aesthetic knowledge which includes intuition.

Aesthetic knowledge is considered the art of nursing. Intuition is defined as understanding without rationale. It is a form of non-analytical reasoning involving pattern and relations recognition that leads to a holistic understanding of a situation.

When it comes to patient care, decisions are based on more than empirical knowledge. Consideration is given to intuitive judgement as well.

This is a natural approach, because patients are individuals and whole individuals at that. In addition, nurses are in a position to get to know the individual patient and to pick up on subtleties unique to that patient. It is my understanding that empirical knowledge does not tell us about a particular individual.

What I learned about intuition and the nursing profession leads me to think that intuition is not completely unreliable.

10:58 PM

Blogger IbaDaiRon said...

In the comment threads on other posts here (and links therein to other sites) it has been "established" that there are genetically determined physiological differences between the brains of women and men and that one effect of this may be that women are more perceptive of the subtle physical cues that relate to social relationships and interactions. Trying to find a logical, scientific explanation in no way diminishes or degrades women and their "female intuition". And the fact that I have external genitalia has no bearing whatsoever on my desire or ability to understand and explain this aspect of the world. Naturally, since there is a direct correspondence between my floppy bits and the structure of my brain, I can never "know" firsthand what it is to have the specific type of intuition purported to be peculiar to women. If you, j_g, prefer to view your internal genitalia and enlarged mammaries as some sort of juju granting you some mystical powers of perception, be my guest. Such would seem to fit with your world view.

The fact that we still do not fully understand intuition is no reason not to try to make practical use of it. I think your nursing-related observations are very interesting, susieq, and I don't see any contradiction with my testosterone-altered viewpoint. : )

5:34 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

shave, thanks for bringing up my claim that intuition about various things are totally unreliable. It seems to be a tad overstated. What I should have said that sometimes these intuitions are correct and sometimes they are not and that because of this one cannot know simply because one has an intuition that, say, someone is abusing a child, that it is true that this person is doing so. The value of intuition, which susieq correctly states (but in my words) that we often have intuitions (feelings of understading) but don't know why we have them. What intuitions may do for us is lead us to investigate something careful to find out if it is true.

There is another side to this. Very often in life, we are forced to take action -- choose to do one thing rather than another -- when we don't have sufficient facts to base the decision on. In such cases we must go with what we have and these may just be gut feelings.

As I noted, cops use their instincts all the time. They are never sufficient for, say, getting a search warrant but they do help them to follow certain lines of investigation over others.

8:12 AM

Blogger IbaDaiRon said...

Both LG's cops and susieq's nurses point to another factor which I think is probably involved in some way: accumulated experience, especially in a professional capacity. This no doubt influences which percepts "resonate" and how they "percolate" through the ole gray matter. Our knowledge/understanding of what really goes on between our ears is still too limited.

2:03 PM

Blogger Milt Findley said...

A most interesting blog. Thanks language guy.

When we take apart a human brain, we find trillions of nerves with trillions of synapses, and when we add in the chemical messenger systems, and their ability to affect multiple synapses, we can visualize something that programmers want to call fuzzy logic. Some synapses communicate directly, and some make and gates, some make nor gates, or gates, and some merely enable or disable other neurons.

Intuition is no more than a thoughtful evaluation that takes place on a level that does not rise to the level of direct consciousness, or even more likely given the complexity of the calculating device, is so complex that we cannot make empirical sense of it.

One of the reasons that such judgements are so disposed towards being faulty is that while all of us think, few of us do it very well. We are like an adolescent, who having discovered deductive reasoning, uses it to evaluate everything around him. It does not always apply.


5:08 PM

Blogger Anders Branderud said...

"Historical Jesus"?!?

Just using this contra-historical oxymoron (demonstrated by the eminent late Oxford historian, James Parkes, The Conflict of the Church and the Synagogue) exposes your Christian-blinkered agenda--dependent upon 4th-century, gentile, Hellenist sources.

While scholars debate the provenance of the original accounts upon which the earliest extant (4th century, even fragments are post-135 C.E.), Roman gentile, Hellenist-redacted versions were based, there is not one fragment, not even one letter of the NT that derives DIRECTLY from the 1st-century Pharisee Jews who followed the Pharisee Ribi Yehoshua.
Historians like Parkes, et al., have demonstrated incontestably that 4th-century Roman Christianity was the 180° polar antithesis of 1st-century Judaism of ALL Pharisee Ribis. The earliest (post-135 C.E.) true Christians were viciously antinomian (ANTI-Torah), claiming to supersede and displace Torah, Judaism and ("spiritual) Israel and Jews. In soberest terms, ORIGINAL Christianity was anti-Torah from the start while DSS (viz., 4Q MMT) and ALL other Judaic documentation PROVE that ALL 1st-century Pharisees were PRO-Torah.

There is a mountain of historical Judaic information Christians have refused to deal with, at: www.netzarim.co.il (see, especially, their History Museum pages beginning with "30-99 C.E.").
Original Christianity = ANTI-Torah. Ribi Yehoshua and his Netzarim, like all other Pharisees, were PRO-Torah. Intractable contradiction.
Building a Roman image from Hellenist hearsay accounts, decades after the death of the 1st-century Pharisee Ribi, and after a forcible ouster, by Hellenist Roman gentiles, of his original Jewish followers (135 C.E., documented by Eusebius), based on writings of a Hellenist Jew excised as an apostate by the original Jewish followers (documented by Eusebius) is circular reasoning through gentile-Roman Hellenist lenses.

What the historical Pharisee Ribi taught is found not in the hearsay accounts of post-135 C.E. Hellenist Romans but, rather, in the Judaic descriptions of Pharisees and Pharisee Ribis of the period... in Dead Sea Scroll 4Q MMT (see Prof. Elisha Qimron), inter alia.

The question is, now that you've been informed, will you follow the authentic historical Pharisee Ribi? Or continue following the post-135 C.E. Roman-redacted antithesis—an idol?

7:35 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...


I don't really care about the issues. I am a full blown atheist and refuse to take sides on these issues.

9:42 AM


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