Good Methods for Truth-Seeking

by Luke Muehlhauser on June 14, 2009 in Reviews

I’m blogging my way through Sense and Goodness Without God, Richard Carrier’s handy worldview-in-a-box for atheists. (See the post index for all sections.) Last time, I finished discussing II.2 Understanding the Meaning in What We Think and Say. Today, I discuss section II.3 Method.

Earlier, we saw (here and here) how, according to Carrier, knowledge depends on the fulfillment of what a proposition predicts. The problem is, there are thousands of explanations for any given experience. So, figuring out which explanations are true will take some sophisticated detective work.

Of course, we can never know something for sure. It’s always possible there is a Cartesian Demon that is deceiving us, giving us false experiences. In fact, such a demon could even trick someone into thinking he is an all-powerful, all-knowing Creator God. Even God could be the victim of a Cartesian Demon! So, we never look for absolute certainty, but reasonable certainty.

It has been the human experience that some methods are more reliable than others. Carrier ranks them this way, with the most reliable method at the top:

  1. Logic and math.
  2. Scientific methods.
  3. Daily experience, interpreted with a logical and scientific mindset.
  4. Critical-historical method applied to claims about past events.
  5. Expert opinion.
  6. Inference from incomplete facts.

Lacking even the least reliable of these methods, we are basically without any knowledge – we’re in the realm of speculation and hearsay.

What makes a good method?

But wait a minute… why does Carrier consider logic, math, and science more reliable than, say, expert opinion? A good method will more consistently lead to “predictive success and convergent accumulation of consistent results.” For example, let’s consider logic and math:

The reason why the logical-mathematical method is supremely successful is that it has, in respect to the two features of an accurate method, produced the broadest, most complete, and most consistent success… This is because the predictions entailed by such propositions are comparatively few, simple, and precisely defined, as well as thoroughly interrelated, and therefore these propositions are very easy to test…

…propositions of logic and mathematics only make claims about the meaning of concepts. So the only empirical inquiry they require is conceptual, and therefore inexpensive and immediate. For they can all be tested in the laboratory of the mind, where concepts exist.

Also, consider scientific method:

[Scientific method] falls short of logical-mathematical certainty because the predictions entailed by scientific propositions are vast, complicated and often difficult to pin down precisely, they are less thoroughly interrelated, and require much more expensive and active investigations that must range far beyond the laboratory of the mind.

…But when [rigorous scientific standards] are met, well and properly, our conclusions will be the most certain we can achieve about facts outside the human mind, correcting even our own errors in direct experience. We have proven again and again that the results of thorough scientific investigation are more reliable than the results of our own casual observation… with the most impressive examples of convergent knowledge in history.

And so on down the list. Even the last one, plausible inference from incomplete facts, is slightly more reliable than tradition, pure faith, hearsay or blind speculation – which have no reliability whatsoever.

And so, properly armed with some idea of which methods will give us the most reliable knowledge about the universe we find ourselves in, we are ready to look out into the world and discover What There Is.

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Chris W June 15, 2009 at 6:42 am

This is a bit of a divergence, but it just occurred to me that the acknowledgement of the Cartesian Demon (the logic of which is unrefutable, I believe, though it doesn’t mean I don’t accept “reasonable certainty”), makes absolute Faith with a capital ‘F’ logically impossible. I believe one can still argue, however unconvincingly, for a “reasonable” faith, but the kind of Faith described in, for example, James 1.6-8 (“But ask is faith, NEVER doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind: for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to recieve anything from the Lord”) seems incoherent. Then again, it may explain why God doesn’t answer prayers.

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