Following the argument where it leads ≠ believing everything you hear (even when accompanied by an argument)

The very last section of my first book (which I swear I will try to make available as an ebook very soon) tells readers to basically go out and research the issue for themselves and reach their own conclusions. Part of me worried about that part of the book, worries that it comes off as cheesy and cliché, but recently I’ve been thinking about how this is a very important point. Let me give an example.

I had received a very strong recommendation for Israel Finkelstein’s book The Bible Unearthedit was recommended to me as the Jesus, Interrupted of Old Testament scholarship. On first reading, it seemed to live up to that recommendation: clearly written, and providing what seemed like a sensible view of the history behind the core of the Old Testament. But you’ll notice at the end of my review of the book I’m careful to say:

I’m not an Old Testament buff, so I can’t state with total confidence whether Silberman and Finkelstein’s theses are actually right. But if they are right, it’s just devastating to all the Abrahamic religions.

Later, I put out a call for Old Testament buffs to help with with this stuff, and also did some other checking of other sources on my own. Having done that, and only having done that, I can say I’m pretty confident Finkelstein’s picture is basically right except maybe with regards to David and Solomon.

Now I’ve been getting my hands dirty researching these various religion-related debates since senior year of high school, so by now these kinds of caveats are second-nature to me, but they’re important. On questions like, “what’s the capital of Malaysia?” you’re safe just Googling it and believing the first link (which will probably be Wikipedia), but on anything with any degree of controversy or boring-old uncertainty, you need to do some work if you want to find out the truth with any degree of confidence.

Now, generally I’m a huge fan of the heuristic “believe the overwhelming consensus of experts, if there is one.” But that doesn’t get you out of having to do some actual research, because you need to figure out if there actually is an overwhelming consensus and if so where it lies. Rather than, you know, just believing the first person who claims to have the consensus on their side.

This, by the way, is a large part of the reason I have a job as a researcher with the Singularity Institute: figuring out the truth of any moderately difficult question, even when there are people out there somewhere who know the answer, is a labor-intensive exercise, and Luke (my boss) doesn’t have enough hours in his day to answer every question he might need an answer to.

All of this applies even when someone gives you arguments for their views. Finkelstein cites a lot of good-looking evidence for his views in The Bible Unearthed, but that didn’t make me automatically believe everything he said. Why not?

First of all, good arguments that are purely a priori are rare, so when you believe something based on nothing more than one person’s argument, most of the time you’re relying on them to have accurately told you what the evidence is. And not only are you replying on them not to have told you anything false, you’re relying on them not to have omitted anything really important.

Even with pure a priori arguments, though, we’re all capable of making mistakes when checking such arguments. When I was just starting to learn algebra in middle school, my dad showed me a “proof” that 1=2. If I found the error myself, it took me awhile, he may have had to explain it to me. You always need to be on the lookout for those divide by zero errors, those plausible-looking assumptions that are actually nonsense, and if you can’t find one even though the argument looks fishy, it’s worth poking around to see if anyone else has found such an error.

This post was prompted by a post of Yvain’s, and I haven’t actually directly responded to him yet. And given the above, I don’t think I actually need to, except hopefully the above recommendation of carefulness won’t sound at all surprising, and it isn’t a recommendation not to follow arguments where they lead, nor is it a recommendation not to “trust the evidence of your own reason.”

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