Inquiry versus rationalizationMay 17, 2009 — Deacon Duncan
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.