Sunday, December 21, 2014

I don't care what you think

But "Weird Al" Yankovic thinks I'm pitiful. That stings
One of my favorite websites (don't call it a blog) is Why Evolution is True, launched in connection with Prof. Jerry Coyne's 2009 book of the same name. A recent post on that site led me to a story on CNN about the results of a contest to come up with "Ten Non-Commandments". It's a pretty good list, but I want to focus on just the second one.

"Strive to understand what is most likely to be true, not to believe what you wish to be true."

This seems straightforward enough, but I think it has profound implications if we really take it seriously. And we should. On the surface, it's a simple warning to avoid wishful thinking. However, what it's really doing is subtly shifting the goal of reasoning itself. When asked to consider a given proposition, what most of us usually do is we start with our general sense of whether or not it is true. If we're good skeptics, and we want to protect ourselves against our own cognitive biases, we try to remain open-minded pending a thorough review of relevant evidence, so that our ultimate opinion will be founded on as firm a basis as possible. That's terrific. But whether we're good skeptics or not, we're giving our opinion as to whether the proposition in controversy is true.

Make a special note of that word "opinion". This simple that word that everyone understands is surprisingly tricky.There are two major types of opinion that I want to distinguish because I think the differences may be important. One kind of opinion is exemplified by aesthetic judgments. In these cases, there is simply no fact of the matter, and these opinions therefore can never be considered right or wrong. But we also use the word "opinion" to refer to provisional beliefs about matters of fact in the face of uncertainty. Predictions, for example. In my opinion, Hillary Clinton will be the 2016 Democratic nominee for President. Unlike aesthetic judgements, that is a factual claim. It is (or will be) either true or false. Also, counter-factuals. In my opinion, they would have won if the quarterback hadn't been injured. It is notoriously difficult to evaluate counter-factuals because they can't be tested, but we can still talk about what would happen if they were. We have opinions about unsolved historical mysteries. I had an opinion about the identity of Deep Throat, the Watergate informant, but it was wrong. We have opinions about whether or not celebrities are gay, or defendants are guilty, and so on. .

As New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan is supposed to have said, "You are entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts." When "opinion" means "aesthetic judgment" and "fact" means "established fact", it means exactly what it says. But when our opinions are standing in for unknown facts, the situation is quite different. When we apply that principle to those opinions, we conclude that a person is entitled to any opinion which could be true. I've seen this principle invoked in hundreds of arguments between atheists and theists. After an atheist presents a list of very good reasons to think that there is no god, the theist may reply "But that doesn't prove that there is no god. Can you deny the possibility?" Apart from moving the goalposts (the possibility of god is a very different question than the existence of god), this point implies that you are entitled to believe anything which isn't demonstrably impossible.

This may seem reasonable to you (surely it must seem reasonable to lots of people), but there's a serious problem with using certainty to distinguish fact from opinion. First of all, it's ambiguous. Do you mean that it is certain as a matter of fact, or merely that you feel certain about it? Clearly, feeling certain about something is not evidence that it is true, so that's no good. But "certainty as a matter of fact" is also a bit tricky since nothing is entirely certain. All knowledge claims are probabilistic, which means that all claims are uncertain, which means all statements of fact are actually opinions in the face of uncertainty (even if it's very, very little uncertainty). If we apply the Moynihan principle to these opinions, we have to conclude that anyone is entitled to believe anything about anything. While this is true as a matter of political liberty, it is obviously not a valid way of reasoning.

So let's look again at that Non-Commandment. The key phrase is "most likely to be true". That is a game-changer, because opinions about what is more likely to be true are opinions in the face of uncertainty. Even though each of us must reach our own estimate of the probability in question (because our estimates will be based on a whole lot of other considerations about which we will disagree), it is ultimately a matter of fact. It's objective. It may be open to debate, but it is not a matter of opinion. When you approach a question in terms of what you think is the right answer, you give yourself license to believe anything that isn't clearly impossible. But once you consider that not all possible answers are equally likely, it raises the question of whether it is ever reasonable to believe a less likely possibility over a more likely possibility.

So when I titled this post "I don't care what you think", I mean that I'm not interested in what you believe is true. That's the wrong question, and it's "just a matter of opinion". Your opinions can't challenge mine because we're each entitled to our opinions. If we disagree, it doesn't mean that (at least) one of us is wrong. I'm interested in what you think is more likely to be true because that is a matter of fact. If we disagree, and you're right, then I must be wrong.   

 I confess that most of what is attractive to me about this Non-Commandment is that it makes the case for atheism so much easier. It's hard not to conclude that the existence of god is unlikely (especially when you start loading up the concept with claims about virgin births and winged horses and such), therefore belief in god is unreasonable. Objectively unreasonable. That may be as close as we'll ever get to a definitive disproof of god, but I think it's quite close enough. However, I'm under no illusions that this little Non-Commandment is going to end religion. Plenty of people will conclude that god is more likely than not to exist for all manner of reasons, and so the debate will go on. But it will go on in terms that are a lot more favorable to atheism.

1 comment:

  1. 1. It's a good thing you don't care what I think.

    2. The real problem is that a lack of certainty cuts both ways. You might just be fighting to a draw.

    - Ovid