Inquiry versus rationalization

One advantage of comparing two hypotheses by measuring their consequences against real-world fact is that this approach allows us to make a clear, functional distinction between honest, unbiased inquiry and mere rationalization. The honest inquirer’s goal will be to zero in on the areas where the consequences are clearly and significantly different between the two hypotheses, maximizing the assurance with which we can draw conclusions about which hypothesis is more consistent with real-world truth. The rationalizer, by contrast, does not want the truth revealed, and so will have a contrary goal: to deprive us of the means of distinguishing the consequences of a true hypothesis from a false one, either by denying us access to the evidence or by obscuring the differences between the consequences each hypothesis would produce.

Commenter cl gives us a couple of scenarios, one hypothetical and one drawn from painful experience, that give us an excellent chance to exercise our reason, and gain some valuable experience of our own in understanding how to apply the techniques of valid hypothesizing to questions of real-world truth.

The first scenario puts us back in the 1700’s, before the discovery of asteroids.

For example, let’s say it was 1709 and I told you there were huge, flying rocks in outer space, and that a big hole in the ground in Flagstaff, Arizona was evidence. We take a drive out there, grab a couple of beers and some sandwiches, and head on out to the desert. When we get there, you tell me, “Hell no, that hole is evidence of one of Von Daniken’s chariots!”

Until recently, there wouldn’t be too much I could say. Meteor Crater was never recognized as evidence for asteroids until a certain level of gateway knowledge had been acquired, and that only occurred relatively recently. Yet an asteroid indeed formed Meteor Crater some 50,000 years ago. Had someone suggested the site as evidence for huge, flying rocks in outer space 5,000 years ago, they’d probably have been crucified. Or someone… would probably call them a disingenuous sophist.

Right away, we notice that this scenario has been explicitly constructed so as to deny the inquirer access to the evidence which would allow them to distinguish which hypothesis was closer to the truth. The focus is on creating a situation in which the same evidence (the crater) would be as consistent with one hypothesis as with the other. So when we look at this scenario in the light of inquiry versus rationalization, which form do we see being followed here? Does it seek to create the impression that one can learn the truth by drawing out the distinctive consequences that would logically follow from each hypothesis, and then comparing these contrasting predictions to the real world evidence? That would mark this as being honest inquiry. Or does it seek instead to create the impression that the evidence is going to be the same no matter what hypothesis we propose? That would be a telltale sign of rationalization.

I’m going to go out on a bit of a limb here and say that this example actually shows the process of legitimate inquiry, since it includes the fact that the asteroid hypothesis ultimately proved correct, and was proven correct by finding evidence that was consistent with the expected consequences of the hypothesis. If there were giant rocks flying around in outer space, then we could say, even in 1709, that we would expect to be able to see them, given optical instruments of sufficient resolution. We should also expect these rocks to have gravitational interactions with each other and with other celestial bodies such as comets. And such is indeed what we did find once those instruments were developed.

Conversely, if we follow the UFO hypothesis, we find that there is no particular reason, based on the hypothesis of extraterrestrial visitation, why we should expect to find giant holes in the ground as a consequence. We can superstitiously attribute large holes to UFO’s, or to war between demons, or to time-traveling terrorists from 3758AD, but we have no reason to do so. We would simply be applying an ordinary superstition to a phenomenon whose true origin we did not know and could not understand. The most we might have a reason to expect is that we might see more UFO’s someday. But even that’s iffy, because it is not part of the hypothesis that the space aliens have any particular desire to establish an ongoing relationship with the people of earth.

Thus, the way we ultimately discern the correct explanation for the meteor crater is by considering each hypothesis in the light of reason: evaluating the likely consequences of each, making sure it has likely consequences (thus making sure that it is a genuine hypothesis and not just a superstition), and then looking for evidence that these consequences match objective reality.

On to the next scenario.

For example, a lifelong friend with a past history of [OxyContin] use acting shady and asking us for money is most certainly consistent with the I’m Fiending For More [OxyContin] Hypothesis (H1). To assume H1 as true would be in accord with predictable real-world consequences and past experience, and we would be fully justified to deny our friend money on those grounds, correct?

But guess what? Our friend’s requests for money can also be fully consistent with the I’m Trying To Quit [OxyContin] And I’m Too Embarrassed To Tell You I Need Methadone Hypothesis (H2). Even though our assumption in H1 is rationally grounded, it can be quite literally be dead wrong, and I just went through this with a lifelong friend. Although I was rationally grounded to believe in H1, I would have been just as rationally grounded to believe in H2 – which was actually the correct hypothesis – but my stubborn insistence that the evidence only fit my hypothesis almost cost a life. Here I’m glad the stakes aren’t so high, but then again, perhaps they are.

Once again, we see that the focus is on creating a situation in which an honest inquirer cannot draw any kind of reliable conclusion because the same evidence is equally consistent with both hypotheses. But once again I’m going to say that the story as a whole illustrates the honest inquirer’s approach, because when we look at the whole story, we see that again, there was one set of consequences that was more consistent with real-world facts than the other. How else would cl know that he had indeed made a mistake, as opposed to having a friend who was indeed fiending for more OxyContin, and just told the methadone story to make cl feel guilty about not providing the cash?

I’m sure that if cl had thought of the possibility that his friend might be seeking methadone treatment, he would have known right away that more information was needed in order to determine which hypothesis was correct. His unfortunate mistake was not that examining the evidence led him astray, but that he tried to evaluate it using only one hypothesis, instead of comparing two hypotheses with differing consequences.

We should therefore all agree that the way to discover the real truth about God is neither by interpreting everything in the light of a single hypothesis (e.g. “taking the Bible on its own terms”), nor by dwelling on areas where the expected consequences would be the same for two different hypotheses (or attempting to make those consequences sound indistinguishable). When we’re dealing with hypotheses as distinctly incompatible as the Myth Hypothesis and the Gospel Hypothesis, we can only tell which is closer to the truth by looking at the consequences that will be significantly different depending on which hypothesis is true, and then seeing which predictable consequences are most consistent with the actual facts.

In my presentation, I have consistently shown how each hypothesis leads logically and reasonably to the consequences I’ve described. It so happens that the real world consistently fits the pattern predicted by the Myth Hypothesis rather than the one we would expect if the Gospel Hypothesis were true. But that’s not my fault, nor does it change the fact that one can derive the expected consequences of each hypothesis even without a knowledge of real-world conditions, and can still see that they are distinctly different.

Now, if someone could show logically and reasonably why the Gospel Hypothesis ought to produce the same consequences as the Myth Hypothesis, then it would be appropriate to caution us regarding drawing definitive conclusions based on evidence that’s the same for both. But so far this has not happened; we’ve only heard promises that such things are possible and might actually be presented some day. Meanwhile, any warnings about overlapping consequences are premature.

I’ve got reasons (as I intend to post on more fully in the coming week) for feeling fairly confident that cl will not be able to come up with a legitimate explanation for why we ought to expect the Gospel Hypothesis to produce consequences indistinguishable from those of the Myth Hypothesis. In a nutshell, the only way the Gospel Hypothesis could produce the same real-world consequences as the Myth Hypothesis is if God’s existence had no more tangible impact on the real world than that of a myth. Since that would make it rather a moot point to deny the mythical nature of God’s existence, the Myth Hypothesis would still have won, and any dissent would be mere semantic quibbling.

 
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Posted in Realism. 17 Comments »

17 Responses to “Inquiry versus rationalization”

  1. nal Says:

    Excellent post.

  2. cl Says:

    DD,

    I didn’t think this post was excellent at all. Big surprise, right? The best you’ve done is to say, “I’ve got reasons for feeling fairly confident that cl will not be able to come up with a legitimate explanation for why we ought to expect the Gospel Hypothesis to produce consequences indistinguishable from those of the Myth Hypothesis.” Big deal? Meanwhile, you still haven’t even elucidated the Gospel Hypothesis in full, or shown me where you have if I’m in fact mistaken. Do you intend to unveil it in full as you go?

    Right away, we notice that this scenario has been explicitly constructed so as to deny the inquirer access to the evidence which would allow them to distinguish which hypothesis was closer to the truth. The focus is on creating a situation in which the same evidence (the crater) would be as consistent with one hypothesis as with the other. So when we look at this scenario in the light of inquiry versus rationalization, which form do we see being followed here?

    Now that’s just the problem, DD, and frankly I don’t appreciate the direction you’re taking this. A bit of a limb, my ass – that assumes the analogies leaned more towards rationalization than inquiry – and thus your credit feels more like insult. Yes, the focus is what you say it is. Isn’t it a bit early to start throwing around words like “rationalization,” however? Frankly, you didn’t even answer the question I asked you, so we’re still in the middle of the discussion. Yes, we can “draw out the distinctive consequences that would logically follow from hypotheses.” I disagree that we always retain that luxury.

    ..such is indeed what we did find once those instruments were developed. (emph mine)

    How is that fair? You’re seeing this thing through the lens of someone who already knows what’s true, talking about gravitational interactions with comets and all. Who was more justified before those instruments and/or complementary theories were developed? Asteroid-believers? Or extraterrestrial-believers? (Von Daniken wrote much later than 1709 we all know) Before those instruments and/or complementary theories existed, the claim that the hole resulted from a huge flying rock from outer space was just as superstitious as the UFO hypothesis – because the hole was hitherto unexplained. Or have you changed your previously stated definition of superstition?

    ..there was one set of consequences that was more consistent with real-world facts than the other.

    I disagree.

    How else would cl know that he had indeed made a mistake, as opposed to having a friend who was indeed fiending for more OxyContin, and just told the methadone story to make cl feel guilty about not providing the cash?

    That’s the whole point: I can’t know. I can only believe what he told me, because the real-world evidence was and still is consistent with both H1 and H2 – and just like the asteroid thing – you haven’t provided any reason why belief in one would be justified over the other when all other circumstances are equal. Again, the best you’ve done with this post is to say, “I bet cl can’t come up with a legitimate explanation.” If we can’t resolve what to do in such a situation, we’re doomed in the larger discussion between the GH/MH. I want to know what we do if at the end of the day, it amounts to a draw – not why you don’t think it will.

    His unfortunate mistake was not that examining the evidence led him astray, but that he tried to evaluate it using only one hypothesis, instead of comparing two hypotheses with differing consequences.

    That’s true, but irrelevant. The question is what to do when real-world evidence equally supports two hypotheses – not how cl made a mistake. I’m not suggesting we only look at one hypothesis when it comes to GH/MH, and I believe you know this.

    We should therefore all agree that the way to discover the real truth about God is neither by interpreting everything in the light of a single hypothesis (e.g. “taking the Bible on its own terms”), nor by dwelling on areas where the expected consequences would be the same for two different hypotheses (or attempting to make those consequences sound indistinguishable).

    I’ve never said otherwise, and that’s the part that tending to piss me off right now, DD. You’re making it look like I’m doing something I’m not. I constructed those scenarios not as point-by-point analogues for our larger discussion, but because I wanted you to explain how we are to know the truth in those instances where all the real-world evidence we can find equally allows for more than one hypothesis. Once you answer that, I’ll be able to continue, but right now I feel you’re treating me like a child. Good think I’m used to it.

    Now, if someone could show logically and reasonably why the Gospel Hypothesis ought to produce the same consequences as the Myth Hypothesis, then it would be appropriate to caution us regarding drawing definitive conclusions based on evidence that’s the same for both. But so far this has not happened; we’ve only heard promises that such things are possible and might actually be presented some day. Meanwhile, any warnings about overlapping consequences are premature.

    You mistakenly conflate work that takes valuable thought time with empty promises, and we’ll see whether my concerns were premature or not.

  3. pboyfloyd Says:

    I’m not sure how Duncan’s hypotheses are equivalent to cl’s scenarios, with their supposedly equivalent hypotheses.

    In the 1700s, magical thinking was even more pervasive than it is today. So what, what conclusion they might have come to?

    The other “example” is just as bad because no-one can tell for sure what cl’s friend might have done at the time he was asking for money, perhaps not even the (recovering?/slipping?) addict himself.

    Now cl’s “counter-point” seems to be taking the form of, “You propose a ‘situation’, so what, I can propose TWO(or three or four) situations!”

    Isn’t this EXACTLY what Duncan is talking about though, dragging the ‘argument’ from a reasonable question, “If there is no significant difference between the hypotheses then the trivial(non-magical one) “WINS” kind of by default!”, into one of several scenarios which are now ‘difficult’ for us all to judge. That is, muddying the waters.

  4. cl Says:

    No, pboyfloyd, you missed it. My counter-point was actually a question to DD, and it has not been answered. I’ve not said or implied “If there is no significant difference between the hypotheses” that either of them wins. I’ve asked DD what we do when real-world evidence reasonably supports both hypotheses, and you’re free to answer, too. Muddying the waters is bringing unnecessary subjects into the discussion that don’t relate to the overall point. Before we proceed, we need to decide and agree upon how we are going to treat draw-type scenarios. Hit the brakes.

  5. pboyfloyd Says:

    But, cl, I didn’t say that YOU were implying that an equivalent non-magical solution ought to “WIN”, I was saying that that is what Duncan is driving at.

    I understand that your counter-point scenarios haven’t been addressed, but it seems to me that you think piling up these supposedly equivalent situations IS muddying the waters, and I explained why I thought that these supposedly equivalent situations were muddying the waters.

    In the crater example you’re constraining us to put ourselves in the position of a 1700s person while we KNOW NOW how the crater got there.

    In the other example the motives of the addicted friend will NEVER be clear, maybe not even to himself.(people lie to themselves, especially in situations with plausible deniablity like that.)

    IOW, I believe the crater hypotheses and the addict friend hypotheses ARE unnecessary subjects because we don’t NEED to put ourselves in the position of a 1700s person trying to decide with lack of evidence NOR do we need to try assess your friend’s mindset, to consider whether the evidence points to the Bible being mythical or not.

  6. pboyfloyd Says:

    ahem.. IS ought to be ISN’T.

  7. cl Says:

    Do we need to decide how to handle draw-type scenarios? That’s the question. Again.

  8. pboyfloyd Says:

    That’s eaay, the solution that isn’t invoking magic is ALWAYS going to lead to more testable hypotheses.

  9. Tom Says:

    “I’ve asked DD what we do when real-world evidence reasonably supports both hypotheses, and you’re free to answer, too.”

    Surely that’s obvious, cl – you look for more evidence. If you should be compelled, for some reason of practicality, to assert one of the as-yet equally supported hypotheses to be true before sufficient evidence has been gathered to confirm it above the others, then you apply Occam and pick the simplest one, or perhaps the one which would require the least additional evidence. If they really are absolutely identical in plausibility, if they have equal support by even Occam and would require equal additional evidence, then you might as well pick one at random, or the one that sounds more pleasant to you.

    As usual on the various blogs I’ve seen your posts in, however, you seem only to be interested in questioning other peoples’ conclusions (nothing actually wrong with that, mind, in and of itself) without offering any of your own, which is really getting annoying. We have thus established a great deal of what you consider to be wrong; now please tell us what you consider to be right, if anything.

    Your position, since again you don’t seem to have actually felt inclined to tell us plainly what it is and rather let us figure it out by implication from the various things you argue against, seems to be that because exclusive naturalism, and thus axiomatic rejection of the supernatural, can sometimes lead one to the wrong conclusion or at least leave total ambiguity when supplied with insufficient evidence, it must have some inherent flaw (again, I have no idea what, if anything, you propose it be replaced with to deal with this apparent flaw; as far as I can tell, your only position is to refuse to take any position at all whilst still happily refuting others – surely, though, your constant refutations of so many assertions must ultimately lead, by elimination, to a de facto position of your own? Or perhaps you refute every possible position, leaving your own to be the empty set which, I’m aware, technically qualifies as one, but seems to be one of no practical value) – but is this really a flaw, if it doesn’t actually matter which conclusion you make in the presence of such ambiguity? In such circumstances, naturalism is no better than a guess, but it is no worse either; is a system which gives the right answer when supplied with enough evidence, and in its absence gives a possibly incorrect answer that is, nevertheless, statistically no worse than any other answer one could come up with by any other means, including pure guesswork, really flawed at all, from a practical point of view? Indeed, could any better system even exist, that could somehow give right answers from insufficient evidence to generate them?

  10. cl Says:

    How does that help us with draw-type scenarios?

  11. R. C. Moore Says:

    cl said:


    How does that help us with draw-type scenarios?

    It does not, and I just added a comment to DD’s most recent post on this.. My though experiment results in a “draw” as you put it, and does not invoke magic, only an equivalent lack of information for all hypotheses.

  12. pboyfloyd Says:

    It helps because, when looking at Duncans’ hypotheses we can see that there IS a magical hypothesis versus a non-magical one.

    It helps because we can discern easily between his hypotheses and your so-called equivalencies and noting that you ARE simply muddying the waters.

    YOur crater scenario’s solutions were a draw(is this what you’re on about?) yet BOTH were incredible.

    Your addicted friend scenario solutions were a draw, in the end, but required a magical ‘seeing into your friend’s mind’ to know for sure.

    I think that you need to conjure so-called equivalent scenarios like these, because EXACTLY equivalent scenarios, like Norse Saga, real or myth, are already agreed upon, as myth.

  13. pboyfloyd Says:

    Sorry, PLUS it seems to me that you’ve taken it as a given that all three scenarios are equivalently a draw?

    And, cl, you are NOW showing your modus operandi. Dragging me along a rabbit trail, leading us nowhere.

    It’s NOT a ‘given’ that Duncan’s hypotheses is a draw.

    It’s NOT a ‘given’ that yours is equivalent.

    So, it seems to be you who is willing to avoid ‘the point’, not me.

    WHAT ‘draw-type scenarios’, then?

  14. pboyfloyd Says:

    One again, sorry to split my comment.

    As I was reading those last two, it occured to me that I, initially was pointing out that Duncan’s and your, cl’s scenarios were NOT equivalent and WERE in fact muddying the waters.

    You, cl, have already moved past that, and agreed with yourself that they ARE equivalent and that they are all ‘draw-type scenarios’.

    You seem to be saying that the three scenarios are not important at all, but since they are all equivalent in your mind then how do we deal with them given that you agree with yourself.

    Once agian, the important point here IS that you are muddying the waters with non-equivalent scenarios, let us not be intellectually disingenuous by skipping over the point I made about your stories to your “more important” point(we hear) about equally ‘draw-type’ scenarios.

    At least let us consider that I am disagreeing with you that these scenarios ARE (and I’m disagreeing)all just trivial ‘draw-type’ scenarios.

    Lastly, I ‘get it’ that you are a good ‘self-apologist’ and an English major and therefore unwilling to concede ANY point at all. I’m sure you see that as a PLUS.

    Since my original point was to say that you are muddying the waters(which you dismissed out of hand), I think that I did make my case that you ARE doing the exact thing that Duncan suspects all apologists do.

  15. Deacon Duncan Says:

    cl –

    I’m sorry if I’ve upset you, but I stand by what I’ve written. I had thought it was fairly obvious that if two hypotheses produce exactly the same consequences, then it is not possible to tell which (if either) is closer to the truth. If indeed two hypotheses do lead to identical consequences, then one cannot be a “reasonable believer” in either one; the only legitimate and intellectually honest position would be frank agnosticism. That is why it is an act of desperate rationalization to try and reduce both hypotheses to a set of identical consequences: it prevents us from drawing true conclusions, which is only an advantage when the position one is defending is contradicted by the truth.

    As you have said, the examples you provided are only examples of the ignorance that prevails when two hypotheses predict identical consequences. Thus, they are not relevant to the current discussion which, according to what has been presented thus far, deals with two hypotheses with remarkably and distinctively different sets of consequences. To suggest that they are relevant, in the absence of good, unbiased reasons for deriving identical consequences, is to invite the suspicion that one’s goals are not directed towards uncovering the truth.

    I chose to decline that suspicion, and to bring out instead the elements of your story that lend themselves to a valid inquiry into the facts and for which you deserve proper credit. If that upsets you, and you prefer instead to focus only on those elements that make a case for ignorance and agnosticism, then I’m sorry, in more than one sense.

    Meanwhile, you say,

    the best you’ve done with this post is to say, “I bet cl can’t come up with a legitimate explanation.”

    That is not true. I have also pointed out that you have not come up with one so far, and your arguments and examples are currently taking place in the context of that absence. You ought not to blame us for taking notice of that fact and its implications, which only you can remedy.

  16. nal Says:

    I think the Myth Hypothesis should be the null hypothesis. Inherent in the Myth Hypothesis is the claim that you can’t tell the difference between God and a myth.

  17. R. C. Moore Says:


    I think the Myth Hypothesis should be the null hypothesis. Inherent in the Myth Hypothesis is the claim that you can’t tell the difference between God and a myth.

    We talked about this in another thread a while back, and I challenge the believers to come up with one thing thing that is measurably different about reality when one ceases to believe in a God.

    What does is mean if God is so well hidden he has no measurable effect?