Thinking About the St. Louis Protests

protests "st. louis" policeIn my neck of the woods, there’s been a lot of talk about the recent protests in St. Louis. The protests concern the decision of the St. Louis Circuit Court to acquit police officer Jason Stockley in the 2011 shooting death of black driver Anthony Lamar Smith.

What should the rest of us think about the protests? Should we “take sides?” Should we remain neutral? From the perspective of an epistemologist, there seem to be several ways your thinking might go. Here are four possibilities:

  1. You might simply form an automatic opinion based on your previous sympathies for either protesters or police. No thinking required.
  2. You might suspend judgment because you simply don’t have enough reliable information to form a good opinion.
  3. You might investigate a little and try to gather testimony from eyewitnesses. Maybe you know someone who knows someone who lives in St. Louis and saw the protests.
  4. You might read the various articles and watch the array of videos and news casts on the events and use that as a basis for judgment.

Of the four options, #1 is clearly the one to avoid. Unfortunately, it is also the easiest, fastest, and often the most cognitively pleasant option. #2 could be justified, but there is a risk – remaining ignorant and thus, neutral, will appear less and less justified as the protests continue to accumulate momentum. The national outcry over police violence may turn out to be a game-changer in our country’s history.

I worry about #4, because the media is not highly reliable. The media’s goal is to gather clicks and eyeballs in order to generate revenue; they are not ultimately concerned with truth or justice. So my recommendation would be #3. If you form and express an opinion about the protests, don’t do it without getting information from the most reliable sources available. Real people on the street. Bystanders who are not officially part of the protests may be the best sources, since they have no agenda.

That being said, getting such information may be hard. So, get as close as you can. This article was helpful to me. If you know anyone in St. Louis, or know someone who does, reach out to them. Form your opinion carefully, thoughtfully. The more people who do this, the more likely we are to promote truth and justice.


How I Believe

believe belief think rationalBelow are 21 statements that form the basis for my own epistemology: how I believe. I’ve tried to avoid technical, philosophical language wherever possible, but it might still sound clunky to some readers. The sub-points, also numbered, offer something like an example of the claim. (Omitted from this post, for the sake of space, is any discussion about updating beliefs based on new evidence.) If you love this topic and want to go deeper, click the links.

Here’s the challenge: Read all the statements, see if you disagree with any of them, then tell me why. Refer to sub-points as “6.1 or 14.3.” Let’s avoid technical nitpicking and focus on substantial differences. I’m open to suggestions for revision. I think these can have important implications for what you believe and helping us clarify how we talk about our beliefs, regardless of your worldview.

  1. A claim is expressed by a descriptive sentence like, “Bananas are fruits,” or “Triangles have three sides,” or “Unicorns do not exist.” (Philosophers like to call these ‘propositions.’)
  2. It is irrational to believe a claim without any evidence to support it.*
  3. If my overall evidence is strongly against a claim, then it is irrational to believe it.
  4. If my overall evidence strongly supports a claim, then it is rational to believe it.
  5. If my evidence for and against a claim is (roughly) even, then the most rational thing is to remain undecided (or “suspend judgment” or “withhold belief”) .
    1. The evidence for and against Jake’s guilt is even, so I don’t know what to think.
  6. If I have no evidence for or against a claim, then the most rational thing is to remain undecided.
    1. I am undecided whether polar bears enjoy raspberry sorbet.
    2. I am undecided whether there is a largest prime number.
  7. believe belief think rationalIf I’m undecided on a claim, then I think the chances of it being true or false are roughly even.
    1. I’m undecided on whether this coin will land on heads or tails.
    2. I’m undecided on whether there are twelve ants on that plant.
  8. I can believe a claim without being 100% convinced it is true.
    1. I believe that my car will last another 2 years.
  9. I can disbelieve a claim without being 100% convinced it is false.
    1. I disbelieve that I will be in a car accident today.
    2. (It is more common to say “I don’t believe that I will be . . .,” but for clarity, we’ll say ‘disbelieve.’)
  10. If I’ve never thought about a claim before (or if I hear a claim that I don’t understand), then I neither believe it, disbelieve it, nor remain undecided. I have no position on it at all.
    1. Prior to typing this sentence, I had no position at all on the claim that there are twelve ants on a plant in my front yard.
    2. I have no position on whether all blorgs are quazzies.
    3. If I have no position, then I have no idea whether there is evidence for or against the claim.
  11. Believing that a claim is false is equivalent to disbelieving that it is true.
    1. I believe that “Tom is a kangaroo” is false. I disbelieve that Tom is a kangaroo.
    2. I disbelieve that triangles have four sides. I believe that “Triangles have four sides” is false.
  12. If I am rationally undecided about a claim, then I neither believe it nor do I disbelieve it.
    1. I am undecided whether the number of stars in the universe is even. Thus, I do not believe it, and I do not disbelieve it.
  13. Having a certain belief means that I believe in a certain claim.
    1. I believe that green is a color. I have the belief that green is a color. I lack the belief that green is a number.
  14. If I lack a certain belief, then either (i) I have never considered the claim, (ii) I disbelieve the claim, or (iii) I am undecided on the claim.
    1. Prior to typing this sentence, I lacked the belief that my dog understands Klingon. I had never considered whether he did or not. Now I disbelieve that he understands Klingon.
    2. I lack the belief that green is a color. I disbelieve that green is a color.
    3. I lack the belief that the number of stars in the universe is even. I am undecided about this claim.
  15. My experiences are a part of my evidence.
    1. My experience of seeing the legal pad as yellow is evidence for the belief that it is yellow.
    2. My experience of Cassie being friendly is evidence for the belief that she is friendly.
    3. My experience of my own thoughts is evidence for the belief that I exist.
  16. conversation testimony believeThe testimony of others is a part of my evidence.
    1. Clark telling me that his shoes fit well is evidence for the belief that Clark’s shoes fit well.
    2. Julia telling me that she ate toast for breakfast is evidence for the belief that Julia ate toast for breakfast.
    3. Montgomery-Smith telling me that there is no known solution to Goldbach’s conjecture is evidence for the belief . . . (you get the idea).
  17.  My memories are a part of my evidence.
  18.  My perceptions are a part of my evidence.
  19.  My inferences are a part of my evidence.
    1. My belief that it will probably rain is supported by other beliefs (there are dark clouds outside, the temperature has suddenly dropped) and a logical inference that is made from them.
    2. My belief that every human has a mother is supported by my beliefs about human reproduction and a logical inference that is made from them.
    3. My belief that all triangles have three angels is supported by my belief that all triangles have three sides and a logical inference that is made from it.
  20.  Evidence can be misleading.
    1. Sometimes we remember incorrectly, misunderstand testimony, make faulty inferences, or have perceptual hallucinations.
  21. We should trust our evidence unless we have a good reason to doubt it.
    1. A good reason to doubt my evidence is either (i) that there was a problem the source of the evidence, or (ii) an independent reason to think the evidence-belief is false.
    2. frog evidence perception believeMy experience of a frog in front of me is evidence for the belief that there is a frog before me. A good reason to doubt my evidence is that I recently took LSD, which makes perception unreliable. (It’s possible that there’s still a frog there.)
    3. My daughter telling me that the door is locked is evidence for the belief that the door is locked. A good reason to doubt this evidence would be that I tried the door myself and found it unlocked.
    4. Note that it would be circular reasoning (or mere contradiction) to claim that my evidence for the frog is bad because there is no frog in front of me, without an independent reason to think there is no frog.

* Some philosophers have argued that if a belief is formed automatically by my brain in an appropriate way (the way brains should work), then that belief is a good one, even without anything that resembles evidence in the usual sense.

Hitchens, Hume, and Miracles

miracle belief skeptic

What should we think about miracles? Have you ever witnessed one? Most people haven’t, but they are willing to rely on the testimony of others. On the other hand, lots of people will insist that with all we know about the way the world works, we should discard our belief in miracles and dismiss testimony of them.

I found this short article to be very fair in its presentation. Philosopher Tim McGrew briefly presents a way of thinking about miracle claims that gives consideration to both skeptics and believers. If you think he wasn’t fair, or omitted some crucial perspective, let me know in the comments.

Evidence, Gender and God

coffee conversation genderMy friend Ellie is transgender. When Ellie and I had coffee a while back, she told me that ever since she was little, she just knew that she was a girl. This wasn’t based on any medical or scientific evidence—it was based on simply turning inward and examining her own sense of self. Some of you will sympathize, others will scoff, but both Ellie and I appeal to the evidence of experience and introspection to support deeply held beliefs. How do we evaluate such claims?

Ways of Knowing

Well, consider first that everyone relies on introspection as a source of knowledge. Introspection is one of the chief ways we come to know things. It is how I know that my knee hurts, that I am feeling sad, or that I exist. There are other ways of knowing, such as testimony, perception, inference and memory. But my experience of my own internal self is a perfectly legitimate means of knowing. Compare introspective experience with perceptual experience, for example. By perception, I can know that you feel depressed—I see your face, I listen to your story. By introspection, I can know that I feel depressed. So we all depend on introspection as a source of knowledge.

chicken genderBut like all sources of knowledge, introspection is not 100% reliable. The man who (by introspection) believes he is made of glass or believes he is a chicken, is mistaken. These claims easily allow for falsification, based on accepted definitions and considerations about what is or isn’t possible. It is physically impossible for me to be made of glass, and it is logically impossible for me to be a chicken, given a certain definition of ‘chicken.’ The clear definition provides a means of falsification.

The Difficulty

What about cases of religious experience and transgender identity? These are difficult, if not impossible, to falsify. Gender claims don’t submit to falsification by way of definitions, for instance. ‘Male’ and ‘female’ resist being cast in strictly biological terms. If we could simply assert that “female = having two X chromosomes,” then it would be simpler. But women with Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (CAIS) have a Y chromosome. It is also possible for a male to have two X chromosomes. Even genitalia can be ambiguous. So the precise definition of ‘male’ or ‘female’ remains slippery. If we insist on a rigid definition, we will still need to create new categories for those who do not fit in the boxes. Even in the religious realm, a place where strict categories are often assumed, Jesus himself said that “there are eunuchs who have been so from birth.” (Matt. 19:12)

religious experience prayerClaims of religious experience and gender identity are also difficult to falsify because they involve private, internal experiences. When I first encountered God and came to believe in him, my experience resembled what people might call a vision or epiphany. Powerful emotions and a sense of “rightness” also accompanied the experience. I can tell you about it, but I cannot share it with you directly, the way I can share my lunch with you. And since only I had access to this experience (or now to the memory), it cannot be falsified (except by me, perhaps). (It could still be undermined in various ways, though.) Similarly, when someone suffers from gender dysphoria (the feeling that one’s biological sex does not match one’s gender), doctors must rely on the self-reporting of private experience to make the diagnosis.

Responding Respectfully

So how should the reasonable person respond to a friend who makes such a claim? Unfalsifiability is not enough to dismiss these claims—my claims about being in pain (which seem legit) are similarly unfalsifiable. But I admit that some moderate skepticism is epistemically healthy. I would want to know more about their experience. Are they generally trustworthy, reliable and reasonable? I would want to know that their mind is functioning normally. If it turns out that they suffer from some physical or psychological disorder that undermines the reliability of their mind in general, then this should probably lower my confidence in the veracity of their claims. An atheist friend of mine dismissed his own religious experience after he was diagnosed with a form of epilepsy known to sometimes produce similar experiences.

reliable testimony gender godBut if you don’t have any reason to think your friend is unreliable, then you should probably say to yourself, “Well, they have a good reason to hold their view. They aren’t crazy. I may not agree, but they seem to be thinking rationally.” If you consider your friend to be especially reliable, then you may even think, “Well, perhaps their testimony now gives me a good reason to believe that such things are possible or even true!” Their word may not be enough to tip the scales of belief for you, but it should at least move the needle.

Is It Arrogant to Think You’re Right?

baseball scoreArrogance stinks. I’ve been accused of it, sometimes guilty of it. And I’ve seen the effects of it—even in my relationship with my dad. A year before he died, we attended our first and only baseball game together. My father loved baseball. When he offered to show me how to “keep score,” I scoffed, informing him that I wasn’t stupid and knew how to keep score. He tried to explain, but I had felt my intelligence insulted and wouldn’t have it. He didn’t force the issue. Years later, after he was gone, I realized what he was saying. I still haven’t learned how to do it.

So I’m under no illusions about the potential ethical consequences of arrogance. I know what it is and what it can do. Arrogance can damage relationships when others feel looked down upon or devalued, it can close you off to new ideas and crucial evidence, it can keep you from the truth. But being malfoy arrogantfamiliar with arrogance means I also know what arrogance isn’t. There is certainly nothing inherently arrogant about thinking you are right, even about important things. In fact, it is logically impossible to believe something is true and not think you are right about it. Arrogance is something extra, an added attitude that intermingles with our beliefs.

So what is that something extra? I think a person is being arrogant when they assert something beyond what their reasons can support. Typically, this assertion takes the form of a value-claim about themselves. But I think it is the epistemic status (whether it is well-supported) of the claim that grounds the charge of arrogance. For example, if I sincerely claimed to be the greatest Scrabble player in Missouri, this would be arrogant because I have no good reason to believe it. But if I were to win the Missouri state Scrabble championship five years in a row, then I might be able to make such a claim without being arrogant.

Arrogance and Religion

What about claims regarding ultimate reality? If someone says, “there are no gods,” or “Jesus is the only way to God,” sparks can fly because they threaten the deeply cherished beliefs of others. But I think the same principle applies here: if you have adequate support for your claim, it isn’t necessarily arrogant. Granted, it is hard to determine what amount of evidence or support is “adequate,” but that is another discussion. The key is to avoid making the assertions without any good reasons at all.

Let me address two worries about the case of religion. First, many religious skeptics will insist that there simply isn’t sufficient evidence to ever make an exclusive religious claim. Religious claims are hopelessly unjustified and therefore inescapably arrogant. Ironically, this objection is itself an unnecessarily strong statement that would require a significant assemblage of evidence and argument to avoid the arrogance charge itself. I think skeptics would be better off simply asking the believer to present their evidence.

lottery probabilitySecondly, religious skeptics and religious pluralists (those who think all religions are true) might say something like this: “Look at all the religions in the world! Do you really think you’ve won the religious lottery and just happened to choose the right one?” Skeptics and pluralists, in this case, think of religion like a game of chance. There are many religions, like numbers in a lottery, and every number is equally likely to win. The probability of being “right” is evenly distributed among all religions. So even if there were only 20 religions, each religion would have only a 5% chance of being right, and this isn’t enough to justify belief or ward off the charge of arrogance. To be justified in believing your religion is true, you’d need at least a 51% likelihood – slightly better than a coin flip. But since there are so many religions, no religious exclusivist can have adequate support for their view, and thus their assertions are arrogant.

But I think this is the wrong model of probability when it comes to religion. It would be better to think of the religion question the same way we think of a murder investigation. Suppose you had 20 suspects. You wouldn’t simply divide the probability evenly among them. You would begin investigating and gathering evidence, and as the evidence mounted, you would eliminate some suspects and narrow the pool. Eventually you might only have 2 or 3 suspects, and hopefully the evidence would point more strongly at one particular suspect. You might say that there’s a 70% likelihood that this particular suspect is guilty, and there’s a small chance that the other remaining suspects are guilty. That may not yet be sufficient for conviction, but it would certainly be adequate to justify a belief in the guilt of that suspect. I think the same is true with religion. As we gather more and more evidence and arguments, we can eliminate certain “suspects” and narrow the field to a few candidates. Eventually, we may find that there is much more evidence in support of a particular religion, raising its likelihood above that of the others and providing sufficient support for belief.

Are We All Exclusive?

us and them arroganceLet me offer one additional thought about arrogance and religion. Exclusivists get a bad rap because they draw a line separating “us” (those who are correct) from “them” (those who are incorrect). Pluralists argue that it is better to avoid drawing lines and think of all religions as true. But whether they realize it or not, pluralists are also drawing a line. On one side are the pluralists (those who are correct) and on the other side is everyone who disagrees (those who are incorrect, which would include most of the Abrahamic traditions). No matter what your position, you will have to draw a line between your group and everyone who disagrees with your group. We are all exclusivists! So, if being an exclusivist makes you arrogant, we are all arrogant. Alternatively, maybe it isn’t arrogant to be an exclusivist.

In conclusion, if you claim to be right about something, and you have good reasons for your claim, then I don’t think you are necessarily arrogant. You should still exercise prudence in how you present your claim—attitude, tone of voice, body language, etc.—because you can still appear (or be) arrogant even if your belief is justified (and even true!). This applies to politics, science, religion and just about anything.

Changing People’s Minds

blaise pascal persuade

I came across this article about Blaise Pascal’s persuasion “trick” a few months ago and loved it. (The title is a bit click-baity, but the principle is sound.) Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) was a French mathematician, physicist, inventor, writer and Catholic theologian. (Check out his wiki here.) An impressive fellow, to say the least.

I won’t try to summarize the article, but if you enjoy engaging in lively discussions about important things with people who disagree with you (and actually hope to persuade), then this is worth a read! exists to help people learn how to communicate with each other about religion, politics, etc. without resorting to emotional outbursts, alienation and violence. This essay about Pascal exemplifies this spirit. You may also be interested in reading about Pascal’s famous argument for belief in God: Pascal’s Wager. For an easy primer, go here. For a more challenging and detailed discussion, go here.