Saturday, February 03, 2007

Letters to a teenage skeptic #2

This is a continuation from Letters to a teenage skeptic, #1  See also Letters to a teenage skeptic, #3, #4, and #5.
My beloved Son,

You said:

... I don't know what epistemology means ... I'm liking my theology class this year, which goes into doctrine and theory more than bible facts. ... Theology is interesting to study, even though I may not believe them, some religious theories make me think

In your next reply to me, could you describe what might have led you to doubt the existence of God?
That will help me to figure out how best to respond. Also, answer the questions you see below.

As for epistemology, it is the theory of knowledge. Some skeptics erroneously cling to a theory that only that which is seen is to be believed. That's absurd, as it is not how anybody on the planet actually gathers knowledge or commits to certain decisions in their life. For example, I have never seen the dark side of the moon. Should I therefore doubt its existence? Of course not. Even though I have not personally experienced something, I do also conclude based upon reason and the testimony of others.

Truth is objective, and it is defined as "that which corresponds to reality." Beliefs are, on the other hand, subjective--they vary from person to person. People come to believe something to be true because of three things: 1) experience, 2) testimony of others, and 3) reason. Since all three of these things often vary from person to person, it is no wonder that beliefs often vary from person to person.

Some people have experienced much, some have experienced less. Some have heard much testimony regarding what is true, some less. Some people are skilled at reasoning. Some people are not. Those that are less skilled at reasoning, less experienced, and have received less testimony regarding the truth tend toward beliefs which are not true.

With regard to reasoning, it can be difficult for many.

Reasoning can be either inductive or deductive.

Deduction (Lat. de ducere) means "to lead, draw out, derive from; especially, the function of deriving truth from truth." It is an inference by which from general truths already known we advance to a knowledge of other particular truths necessarily implied in the former.

The typical expression of a deductive inference is the syllogism. Granted the truth of the prior judgments, the consequent must follow; and the firmness of our assent to the latter is conditioned by that of our assent to the former. An example of dedution is as follows...
  1. Everything that has a beginning has a cause.

  2. The universe has a beginning.

  3. Therefore the universe has a cause.

Induction is the complement of deduction. In other words, it is inference by which from particular truths already known we advance to a knowledge of general or universal truths supported by the former. In this form of reasoning, the premises of an argument support the conclusion but do not ensure it.

  1. All observed crows are black

  2. Therefore all crows are black

The conclusion is reasonably supported by the premise, but not absolutely proven in the strict sense. Unless we are certain that we have seen every crow (which is impossible), there may be one of a different color. Consequently, with inductive reasoning, the premises--at best--may predict a high probability of the conclusion, but do not absolutely ensure that the conclusion is true.

For example,
  1. All observed beginnings have a cause

  2. Therefore, all beginnings have a cause

The above is an argument based upon inductive reasoning. Unless we have observed everything that had a beginning (which is impossible), we can at best, only predict with high probability that everything which has a beginning has a cause. It is a reasonably certain conclusion, based upon the preponderance of evidence.

The "law of gravity" and other scientific postulates such as the "Big Bang" theory of cosmology are also based upon a combination of inductive and deductive reasoning. Such theories rely upon inferences toward general conclusions based upon particular observed evidence. Very few things can be argued by deductive reasoning alone. When skeptics often want to limit theological "proofs" to deductive reasoning, it shows that they take a biased approach to theology whereas they allow for inductive reasoning for drawing reasonably certain conclusions in all other fields.

Inductive reasoning is cogent, and it is used in decision-making in all fields of study, such as civil and criminal law, philosophy, science, economics, politics, military studies, and theology. Consequently, we ought to approach our study of theology with the same epistemological standard as we do with other fields of study. For instance, we convict murderers with much reasonable certainty, based upon the preponderance of evidence, even if we did not "see" them actually commit the murder. Thus, the trustworthy testimony of others is a valid means of obtaining knowledge from which we can draw certain conclusions. Trustworthy testimony ought not to be excluded from our epistemology, but should be joined with our own experiences and our reason in forming our beliefs.

Moreover, God wants us to reason. “Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD” (Is 1:18); “You shall reason with your neighbor” (Lev 19:17); “[I] lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me” (Dan 4:34); “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Pet 3:15).

In order to reason, we need to learn how. What follows is a quick primer on logical reasoning...

Objective Truth
  • Truth is objective: “truth is what corresponds to reality"

    • Real (Webster’s) = “not artificial, fraudulent, illusory, or apparent”

    • Reality (Webster’s) = “the totality of real things and events”

    • Truth (Webster’s) = “the body of real things, events, and facts

  • Truth and reality, therefore, are synonymous--the totality of things, events, and facts which are not artificial, fraudulent, illusory, or apparent

If we share the same reality, then "truth for me" must be the same as "truth for you"—truth must be objective.

There are false claims of “subjective” theories of truth. However, truth is a real concept, not simply a word that can be redefined into whatever we want it to mean. To do so would result in linguistic confusion. We should resist trying to confuse the objective concept of "truth" with the subjective concept of "belief."

False "subjective" theories of truth
  • Pragmatic: “truth is only that which works”

  • Empiricist: “truth is only that which we can sense”

  • Rationalist: “truth is only that which can be proved by reason”

  • Oneness or syncretist: “truth is only that which is the harmony of all ideas”

  • Emotional: “truth is only what I feel”

Human Reason – 3 acts of the mind
  • Human reason manifests itself in three acts of the mind:

    • Understanding

    • Judging

    • Reason

  • These three acts of the mind are expressed in:

    • Terms – either clear or unclear

    • Propositions – either true or false

    • Arguments – either valid or invalid

In other words, our mind can understand terms, judge propositions, and reason arguments

Essential Rules of Reason
  • A term is clear if it is intelligible and unambiguous

  • A proposition is true if it corresponds to reality

  • An argument is valid if the conclusion follows necessarily from the premises

The conclusion must be true if all the terms are clear, the propositions are true, and the argument is valid. To disagree with the conclusion of any argument, it must be shown that either an ambiguous term or false premise or a logical fallacy exits in that argument. Otherwise, to say “I still disagree” is to say “You have proved your conclusion true, but I am so stubborn and foolish that I will not accept this truth. I insist on living in a false world, not the true one.”

Questions for you to answer...
  1. What was it that caused you to doubt the existence of God?

  2. Do you agree that there is a difference between truth and belief (the latter is subjective, the former is not)?

  3. Do you agree that if the terms are clear, and if the propositions are true, and if the argument is valid, then the conclusion must be true?

  4. Do you agree that "truth for you must be the same as truth for me?"

Love you and God bless,


See here for more: Letters to a teenage skeptic #3