Tuesday, March 07, 2006

L's Philosophical Primer

Epistemology is the study of knowledge. I studied it in college and ended up much stupider. There are a lot of really smart people who get this, I just don't happen to be one of them. However, I've settled on a personal way to understand "knowledge". When you say you "know" something, it means that there is a high enough probability that it is true for you to accept it as such and act accordingly. This view accommodates the skeptics who challenge you can never really know anything at all for certain because of the limitations of the mind, and provides a rational way to include evidence into one's worldview. Further, the line may be set higher or lower for any given individual, or for any given situation.

Scientific sideline: when you read that a study has "shown something to be true" it usually means that there is a less than 5% chance that the outcome of the study was the result of chance alone. That's the arbitrary cutoff most scientists use for what's called a p-value: 5%. So, one in twenty statistically significant "conclusive" studies are actually the result of chance. And people wonder why science appears so inept.

Knowledge is relevant to my faith because there's no way to amass enough evidence to have a 100% possibility of being correct, unless you accept something supernatural as evidence (aka the Holy Spirit). And the Holy Spirit is something that can't be replicated like other evidence one might provide. Therefore, coming to a 100% knowledge of something may be personally irrefutable, but impossible to convey to others. When 2 people claim to have a 100% knowledge of contradictory things, one or both of them are mistaken. There's no need for intolerance or bickering, it's just something where you have to agree to part ways and disagree. In matters of public policy or science, supernatural evidence should not have any bearing relying instead on objectively measurable evidence or majority opinion as appropriate.

Metaphysics is the study of the nature of being and existing ("beyond physics"). It's beyond what we can measure, so you have to resort to philosophy to figure it out, and it may be a little less precise consequently. For example, time and space are thought by Kant to be intuitions--conditions of the brain that don't reflect the reality of being, but are a necessary framework on which we place our consciousness and understand our lives and our interactions with the universe. Esoteric and boring, I know.

This is relevant only because I've mentioned in an earlier post that I believe that the purpose of our lives, the ontological meaning of our existence, is beyond our capacity to understand as mortal beings. We don't and can't fully understand it except as we increase past a mortal level of capability. That may come here on Earth to some particularly enlightened folks, but will probably happen for most after this life is over. Whether being gay and happy or Mormon and repressed makes sense to you or not is important. But pursuing ultimate ends like happiness or a personal road to fulfillment may completely miss the metaphysical mark, so to speak. In my view, the best road is to rely on a being that has the capability to know the end from the beginning--who has the perspective to give reliable advice. And that advice may not make sense, but that's the whole point--if we could make sense of it on our own we wouldn't necessarily need the advice.

This is at least somewhat relevant to Foxx's impressive post.

Logic is correct reasoning. There's a whole study of the rules, and I liked it enough to get a minor in it. Some of the interesting points of logic relative to our gay Mormon discussions are:

- Straw man fallacy: inaccurately or weakly characterizing a particular point of view so that it is easier to argue against and defeat. This is a favorite tactic of bloggers everywhere, politicians, journalists, and pretty much everyone. Keep your eyes open and you will see it all the time. Hell, I've probably committed it a couple times in this very post.

- Slippery slope: taking a particular action opens the door to or increases the likelihood of taking subsequent actions that are less desirable. For example: legalizing gay marriage would open the door to legalizing any kind of sexual union. No, it would legalize gay marriage and a healthy public debate would precede any recognition of other kinds of sexual unions. The slippery slope can be a real thing, but usually it's the basis of fear mongering and propaganda.

- Appeal to authority: Argument in which an authoritative source is considered to be the last word on a topic. Usually this is a fallacy. For example, scientists are smart but not always right. The data and logical argument they present should be evaluated for validity, not accepted carte blanche, and good scientists readily admit this. Beware the claims of science proven penis enlargement. If only it were true. Anywho... However, accepting God's or prophetic words as infallible is not fallacious since it is consistent with an entire belief system. When infallible authority is axiomatic, an appeal to that authority is valid. The degree or manner in which prophetic and religious appeals to authority should be tolerated is open to debate, in my book.

- Relativism: Wikipedia: Relativism expresses the view that the meaning and value of human beliefs and behaviors have no absolute reference. I just can't buy it. And this is where I probably offend the most people. I'm all for individual accountability, autonomy, and self-actualization. But to actually say that truth itself changes based on your opinion? Maybe I misunderstand. [My wife pointed out that I commited the straw man fallacy here by criticizing "truth relativism" with general relativism. See--it's everywhere!] Hence, my post about the importance of fact to me as a Mormon. The importance here is that there is a trap in believing that some personal road to God is gonna be good enough. If spirituality is a soft, make-it-into-what-you-want-it-to-be, sort of thing, then sure. But for me, spirituality is an attempt to transcend into a higher metaphysical realm--into something that is independently true and real and separate from myself. I must conform with it if I want a particular result, just as I must have a parachute and not just a good heart if I'm going to jump off a cliff.

Tolerance: not a philosophical topic, but extremely germaine. Even necessary, given that I fully anticipate having just offended at least a few people. Should we be intolerant of intolerance? I don't know. My gut reaction is that when intolerance is academic in nature, then yes we should be tolerant of intolerance lest we be ourselves unwittingly intolerant. But if the intolerance actually infringes on the lives of others by taking away their freedom or personal rights, it can't be tolerated. This may look like mental masturbation, but it really has a point. I find it completely acceptable to have a world view that the Mormon church is infallibly correct, being gay is absolutely immoral, and attempting to reconcile the two is absolutely misguided. I disagree, but I find it to be an acceptable point of view for someone to have and it doesn't hurt me a bit for them to have it. However, if that person then commits a hate crime as "God's will," because they think it's consistent with God's punishments they are, in my humble estimation, a psycho loon. (Same for bombing abortion clinics, grayer when it involves conscientious objectors in medicine... all interesting topics, but not gay Mormon focused.)

Likewise I feel it is perfectly acceptable for someone to believe the Mormon church is a cult, it is repressive and damaging to gay men and all women, and has a history of irrational discrimination. Again, I would tend to disagree. Oh hell, I would think you were an idiot, what can I say? But it's an acceptable point of view. It's when you then burn down Mormons' houses, call for legal extermination of Mormons, plan all medical student activities on Sundays, plan medical student classes on sexuality as if relativism is a fact... wait, am I getting too autobiographical? Anyway, that's not cool.

There's plenty of room in the world for different points of view. I appreciate that. But being tolerant doesn't mean you can't believe that someone else is wrong, it just means that you recognize their right to be wrong and live their lives independent from you. Tact dictates a certain reluctance to call someone plain wrong when you disagree with them, and humility dictates that you recognize that intelligent rational people may come to different conclusions than yourself.

Thank you, this concludes the longest stream-of-consciousness blog post ever written by the pseudo-philosopher, L!


Foxx said...

Thanks, L. My esteem for you has just been raised. ;)

Not to mention that this helps me put together an answer for Nappy on my blog's most recent entry.

-L- said...

Hey, thanks... I think. What exactly did you think of me before? No, don't tell me, I don't want to know. I just appreciate your compliment. :)