24 June 2011

Knowledge vs Belief - Part 2 (conclusion)

So, what exactly does the difference between these two things have to do with intellectual honesty...

I believe right-wing conservatives have manufactured this notion of a 'liberal media".  If I say this to someone else, they might laugh agree or disagree, but it's clear that it's only an opinion, and that it's not being offered with authority.  If instead I claim to know this, it implies I've got objective evidence that it's true, and that this evidence is compelling enough that others can/should/do accept it as well.

What if I claim to know this about conservatives but fail to provide any objective evidence?

A short apology is in order: for the moment, the only examples I have of this kind of dishonesty are religious in nature.  I don't want this blog to simply point to religion as the primary source of intellectual dishonesty, but I find myself struggling to find suitable examples elsewhere.  If this blog ends up focusing too much on religion, I apologize.  I'll try to not let that happen...

Theists often elevate their faith (aka. belief) to the level of knowledge in order to give it authority, and they do this being unable to provide the objective evidence that is required for it to be knowledge.  If you're a Calvinist, you believe that sinners are saved only by the will of God - not works or repentance or faith.  If a Christian asks how you can know that Calvinism is correct, you will point to the Bible.

In essence, faith is offered as evidence for the veracity of faith.

That's not knowledge.  It's fundamentally dishonest to pretend otherwise.

Intellectual honesty demands that you accept the difference between knowledge and belief (though you don't necessarily have to admit it to other people).  You shouldn't try to give more authority to the things you're unwilling to provide objective evidence for.  Belief can be knowledge if you show evidence for it to a non-believer, and based only on that evidence, he/she concludes "hey, you might be right about that".

17 June 2011

Knowledge vs Belief - Part 1

You'd think it'd be easy to distinguish between the two...

Knowledge(1) : the fact or condition of knowing something with familiarity gained through experience or association (2) :acquaintance with or understanding of a science, art, or technique

Belief: a state or habit of mind in which trust or confidence is placed in some person or thing

Merriam-Webster appears to sum up the two as experience vs trust.  Makes sense on a practical level, but there are all kinds of experience, and there are varying levels of trust.  AND - you can't experience something without trusting your senses, and you can't trust things without having some experience upon which to base that trust.

Practically speaking, we trust science.  We do this because we know it's worked in the past, and we know there are people who do it professionally as well as those who pursue it merely to understand.  We can look around us and see products made possible only by science.  There's no doubt that science generally works.

So... how should we distinguish between knowledge and belief?  More importantly, how can you tell when a person makes a claim of knowledge that should instead be a claim of belief?

Interestingly, the word "knowledge" seems intuitively to have more authority/credibility.  You'll often find people claiming to know things they simply believe, but you will rarely (if ever) find people claiming to believe things they know.  Belief seems to involve personal conviction, something that holds authority only with the person making the claim.  You wont convince anyone of anything if your argument is merely that you believe it to be true.

Objectivity is what distinguishes knowledge from belief.  If two people are able to experience the same thing and come to the same conclusion, "the ball is red" is no longer a statement of belief but a statement of knowledge.

How this ties into intellectual honesty is something I'll get into next post.

16 June 2011

Intellectual Honesty: what is it?

Everyone knows what a dictionary is; if you really want an unbiased explanation of the phrase, go look it up.

In the time I've spent discussing various things online, I've refined my notions of right & wrong, good & bad, etc.  I never considered there to be a clear line separating the opposites, but I now understand that it's actually VERY difficult to draw clear distinctions.  Practically speaking, people weigh the relative amounts of rightness & wrongness, and decide based on the preponderance of one over the other.

Intellectual honesty is much the same way.  The simple act of arguing a position you do not personally hold can be both honest and dishonest at the same time.  As such, your intent in arguing that position has to be one of the deciding factors.

In a general sense, intellectual honesty has to start with the person holding a belief or making a statement.  You have to be aware of what you know, and how well you know it.  You also need to remember WHY you're making the claim.  Taking these into account gives you a sense of whether you're stepping over that smudgy line or not.

As a practical example, I've often questioned the claims made by fundamentalist Christians.  To make my point, I'll mention various scriptural passages which seem to contradict their claims, just to see how they handle the discrepancy.  If I were to portray myself as believing in those passages (as Biblically sound or proper or truthful, etc), that would be intellectually dishonest.  Not because I would have lied, but because I would be lying in order to support my argument.  Indeed, if the fundamentalist questions my sincerity, I would have to admit my lack of religious faith.

Be willing to admit (to yourself) when you've based an opinion on something that may not be true.  Be ready to admit to a person you're arguing with whether you're aware of this or not.

14 June 2011

It's been a long time...

I used to have an extensively introspective blog at WindowsLive. By that, I mean almost everything I wrote involved questioning my thoughts & opinions, or trying to suss out where they came from. It didn't get a lot of hits; controversy generates traffic faster than self-indulgence. But I had a few regular readers who kept bringing up subjects that I wanted to write about. I think it ended up being both productive and fun.

I liked that blog.

But eventually, my writing efforts began to move towards the blogs of other folks. I somehow found my way to Ray Comfort's blog, where a group of his critics joined forces to create a blog dedicated to that criticism. That, in turn, resulted in a forum where I've been writing and posting to frequently for the last 2 years.

I love that forum, and I care for many of the people who post to it.

But now I find myself wanting to get back to the self-indulgence a bit, and that's what this blog will be about. I value introspection, but I consider intellectual honesty to be a component of introspection that is both under-valued and misunderstood. It's not simply "being honest"; it involves the willingness to write/speak with authority only on things you understand, and to admit when your understanding is limited

Which ends up being nearly "all the freakin' time".

With that in mind, welcome!