Imperfect Views of Reality

In a blog post about denialism, Mark Hoofnagle writes:

Denialism in most people is a defense mechanism that protects their core values from being undermined by reality. And no matter what your ideology, at some point, you will have a conflict with the facts because no ideology perfectly describes or models all of reality. You are going to come into conflict with the facts at some point in your life no matter where you are on the ideological spectrum. The question is, what will you do when that conflict arises? Will you entrench behind a barrier of rhetoric, or will you accept that all of us are flawed, and our beliefs at best can only provide an approximation of reality – a handy guide but never an infallible one?

The whole post is worth reading. It gets at a number of important points, including why simply adding more data or education does not eliminate denialism, because it is not about those things but about more fundamental reasoning processes, and our approach to knowledge and ourselves. Here’s another quote:

This is what is at the heart of true skepticism. First, understanding that you can be wrong, in fact you will often be wrong, and all you can do is follow the best evidence that you have. It’s not about rejecting all evidence, or inaction from the constantly-moved goalposts of the fake skeptics. It’s about pragmatism, thoughtfulness, and above all humility towards the fact that none of us has all the answers. Second, it’s understanding not all evidence is created equal. Judging evidence and arguments requires training and preparation as recognizing high-quality evidence and rational argument is not easy. In fact, most people are woefully under-prepared by their education to do things like read and evaluate scientific papers or even to just judge scientific claims from media sources.

To put it another way, we need to train people in appropriate skepticism, and for it to be effective in preventing the acceptance of crackpot theories, then that training must include skepticism that is aimed inward, skepticism about our own motives, assumptions, perspectives, comprehension, and reasoning.

Those resources are not the purview of any one ideology. Indeed, one can argue on the basis of Christian sources and resources that Christians, instead of being the most dogmatic voices, ought to be at the forefront in promoting humility, introspection, and self doubt. That Christians in our time often do not fit that description just illustrates how far modern fundamentalism is from what Christianity has been in ages past.

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  • plectrophenax

    This stuff raises many interesting points about reality, since a skeptical position might be that we don’t know what it is, and we cannot know. Hence, the view that science describes reality could be seen as naive realism, and of course, not in fact a scientific claim.

    In a sense, this kind of skepticism also helps theism, just as postmodernism does. If I don’t know what reality is, then all views are guesses, I suppose. It also depends on your brand of theism – if you think God is a huge human figure, then you have your work cut out on that one.

    But if you don’t think that God is an item in the universe, a la classical theism, then that view is probably immune from criticism, but is also perhaps a guess.

    • James Walker

      science requires the assumption that there is an objective reality that is independent of observation and that observations under similar conditions will be similar regardless of the observer. without those assumptions, it is impossible to do science.

      now, none of that answers the question of what is really real, but so far science has demonstrated itself remarkably effective as a paradigm for dealing with the world our senses report to us.

      • plectrophenax

        All good; but I would pick up the point about the ‘world’. Do our senses in fact report that to us? It seems to me that world is an inference from perception, and indeed, a very useful inference. However, in some Eastern religions, ‘neither I nor the world exist’ is an important theme, highlighting the present moment-ness of those religions. Even Christianity on occasion looks at the consequences of self-abandonment, or the collapse of the dualism of self/world. But these ideas are not incompatible with science, which after all presents us with a method, not a metaphysics.

  • newenglandsun

    An interesting piece on caution and skepticism.