Knowledge and Error: Second Response to Tom Clark

Knowledge and Error: Second Response to Tom Clark

Yesterday I made my first response to Tom Clark’s naturalistic epistemology, pointing to self-contradictions I believe it contains. I use the term “naturalistic epistemology” intentionally, for it seems to me his approach to knowledge is very strongly biased toward naturalistic conclusions.

It was not these internal contradictions, however, that interested me most about his paper. It was his approach to knowledge in general, which today I am looking at from an exploratory angle. I do not expect this to lead to a definitive statement, “X approach to knowledge is wrong,” or “Y approach is right.” I’m not entirely sure as I begin writing where this will lead, actually. Writing is a learning process: you find out what you really think. As I begin here, I only think I know what I think.

It begins with the observation that Clark leans heavily on two knowledge filters: the “insulation requirement” and the “public object requirement.” He explains them thus:

To back up our claim that experience captures reality we must rule out such influences, insulating our beliefs as best we can from subjective bias and possibly mistaken conventional wisdom.

and

Unless there’s intersubjective data, a public object of some sort we can all in principle see or sense in some fashion and thus agree exists, it doesn’t matter how many millions of individuals report subjective experiences of [G]od or the soul: they could all be mistaken, just as all those reporting experiences of alien abduction could be (and likely are) mistaken.

He goes on to add that these two “constitute basic epistemic good practice, without which no factual claim about the world has credibility.”

I called them knowledge filters, for that is what they are: conditions that must be applied to any putative knowledge before it can be accepted as real knowledge. The entire thrust of his epistemology in this article, in fact, is pointed toward filters. He is very concerned to achieve complete certainty before a putative piece of information is admitted into the realm of knowledge. Similarly he also says,

The only reliable basis for knowledge, the only route from subjectivity to objectivity, is to relentlessly subject a belief to doubt, then to allay the doubt (or confirm it) by gathering evidence that’s independent of one’s commitment to the belief. To the extent that worldviews, however widely held, fail to test their factual claims using publicly available evidence, and to the extent these claims are incapable of being tested, they fail as contenders for truth.

Religious and other non-empirical ways of knowing don’t sufficiently respect the distinction between appearance and reality, between subjectivity and objectivity. They are not sufficiently on guard…

If it is not “relentlessly” tested, it cannot be called knowledge.

He is probably aware of a statistical technique called power testing.* It is a mathematical means of estimating, before a research project is undertaken, how likely it is that an hypothesis would be supported by the study, if the hypothesis is actually true. Any research that involves examining a sample of a larger population is prone to errors of two opposite kinds. By chance, you might take a sample that makes the hypothesis appear to be true when actually it is not true. Or by chance, you might take a sample that makes the hypothesis appear not to be true when it actually is.

Power analysis can help a researcher estimate the chances of making the second error: what is the probability that, by chance, we would miss the effect just because our sample didn’t represent the whole population accurately? There are two factors contributing to statistical power that matter little to our discussion here—sample size and the strength of the hypothesized effect. There’s another factor that matters a great deal to this discussion: how high is the bar being set for this research? How certain do we think we have to be before we’ll say the outcome would count as real knowledge? The higher the bar you set for it to count, the more likely you are to commit the second error I mentioned: considering the hypothesis not to be true when it actually is.

There is therefore a trade-off: the tighter the filter—the more you protect yourself from the error of falsely seeing an effect where none exists—the more likely you are to miss an effect where it actually exists. In statistical power analysis we can quantify that relationship: a research design with extremely tight filters has low power to detect reality. I think there is an analogy between this and matters of theology and philosophy. It seems to me that Clark’s filters are so tight, his design has nearly zero power to detect non-natural realities, if they exist. He has made certain that whether they exist or not he could never see them.

I suggest that this is poor research design. One’s epistemology should not be of a sort that prevents one from seeing God, if God exists.

Now I think Clark might respond this way: “I’m being appropriately careful not to call “knowledge” of God knowledge unless we can really know that it is knowledge.” To this I have three general responses:

1) The filters, as I wrote yesterday, are unreasonably tight, so tight that they filter out even themselves. If my analysis is correct they are self-contradictory.

2) He is not just holding theological knowledge at arm’s length, taking an agnostic stance. He makes a number of positive anti-theological assertions:

When it comes to representing reality, there is no coherent, ethically responsible substitute for science and other empirical disciplines. The alternatives—faith-based religions, empirically unfounded secular ideologies, and commercial agendas hostile to evidence—often claim to be objective representations of how the world is in various respects, but have no entitlement to such claims.

There’s consequently no reason to grant [any religious system] any domain of cognitive competence.

This is to say that being epistemically responsible, not taking appearances at face value, inevitably pushes us toward intersubjectivity and science. This in turn heightens the plausibility of the claim that there’s nothing over and above the natural world, what science shows to exist.

Such a way of knowing, were it available, would give us confidence that [G]od, the soul, contra-causal free will, and perhaps other phenomena science can’t confirm (paranormal powers, astrological influences, etc.) actually exist. The difficulty, however, is that there’s no epistemic space in which to construct such an alternative.

Indeed, the Palinesque parochialism that disdains correction by science and knowledge-based expertise is manifestly dangerous.

Although organizations promoting science shouldn’t be contemptuous of religious faith and revelation—that’s counter-productive and unwarranted—they should challenge the idea that non-empiricism has cognitive competence in some purportedly real domain, such as the supernatural.

If we take ourselves to be governed by rational rules of evidence, then as Victor Stenger argues we should agree that [G]od is a failed hypothesis.

A more reasonable approach would be to recognize that his epistemic filters are so tight, his examination of the God “hypothesis” employs a research design with impossibly low power to detect him. A responsible researcher would acknowledge this and say, “we did not find God but we did not show he does not exist, either. Further research with more power would ” Clark is not as careful as that.

3) Why set the filters so tight? In science, filtering (confidence levels) is set by a comparison of risks. We know there’s always a possibility that we’ll come out with a false conclusion by chance, so which error—supporting a false hypothesis, or failing to support one that’s true—would be easier to live with if we made it? Often researchers will accept a 5% chance of calling a false hypothesis true (these things are easily quantifiable through basic statistics). Sometimes that’s too generous and researchers will accept no more than a 1% chance or less. Clark’s filters, if they could be quantified, would surely be tighter than that. What is the risk to him if he opens them up?

The danger is that he would see spiritual reality where none exists. The risk that comes from keeping the filters too tightly closed is that he will fail to see a spiritual reality that actually does exist. Pascal’s Wager intrudes on one’s thoughts here, but this is different. This is not about one’s decision about belief, but something prior to that: the way a person approaches the question of belief. I submit that failing to see a spiritual reality that actually exists is very dangerous, more dangerous than falsely “seeing” one that does not; and that therefore creating an epistemology that cannot see anything but the natural world is not wise.

So that is my exploration of what I take to be the ideas behind Tom Clark’s epistemology. If I am right about any of this, then here is where we have arrived: his epistemology is seriously flawed. Even if his filters were not self-contradictory, as I suggested yesterday, they would still be poorly designed for detecting what might possibly exist in reality.

*You have my permission to skip this paragraph and the next if you wish, though I really am trying to speak English in them. Those with a background in statistics may cringe at the resulting imprecision of my expression, but then if you know statistics, you don’t need me to be that precise anyway. This is for those who do not.

Series Navigation (Tom Clark and Naturalism):<<< Knowledge and Bias: A First Response to Tom ClarkKnowledge and Evidence: Third Response to Tom Clark >>>

10 thoughts on “Knowledge and Error: Second Response to Tom Clark

  1. Interesting commentary, Tom. There’s a continuum at work here that ranges from those who don’t want to believe anything false to those who don’t want to reject any truth – and everything in between.

    The person on the one extreme disbelieves literally everything because to them believing in falsehoods is the worst thing that an intelligent person can do. They’d rather over-filter everything than believe something that is not true. The person on the other extreme believes literally everything because to them rejecting truth is one of the worst things a person can do.

    In reality people fall in the middle of the continuum – and rightfully so. Our goal should be to maximize true beliefs while minimizing false beliefs as best we can. Based on what you’ve written here, I think Tom Clark leans too heavily toward the person who’s primary goal is to minimize false beliefs at the expense of missing out on true ones.

    I haven’t really thought this part through, but how does over-filtering and under-filtering impact a person’s life? Who has the most to lose, or gain? Maybe there’s no easy answer to this question but I thought I’d toss it out there anyway.

  2. Here’s a proposal for a meta-filter:
    If a filter does not permit me to believe that someone (friend, relative, lover) actually loves me, then it needs to be discarded as soon as possible!

  3. You say “[Clark] is very concerned to achieve complete certainty before a putative piece of information is admitted into the realm of knowledge.” Not so. I only want our knowledge claims to be based on the best intersubjective evidence and theory going. I’m not sure that we’ll ever gain complete certainty about reality, but some sorts of evidence are more reliable than others and some theories are better than others according to widely accepted criteria of explanatory adequacy and transparency. The possibility of being wrong is always present to the naturalist, who takes ongoing and perhaps always unfinished science (or more broadly, intersubjectivity) as the basis for knowledge claims. This is not to say that anti-naturalists never admit fallibility in their beliefs, many do I’m sure.

    You say “[Clark] is not just holding theological knowledge at arm’s length, taking an agnostic stance. He makes a number of positive anti-theological assertions.” But the assertions I make aren’t primarily or centrally anti-theological, in fact I specifically point out they apply to secular as well as religious agendas. They are primarily concerned with defending good epistemic practice: don’t take appearances at face value, honor intersubjectivity and science instead of disdaining them, and be governed by rational rules of evidence. When followed, these practices tend to unify our understanding of what exists, not divide the world into the natural and supernatural, or at least that’s where they’ve taken us thus far. Should they eventually lead in a dualistic and theistic direction, so be it.

    You say “[Clark’s] epistemic filters are so tight, his examination of the God ‘hypothesis’ employs a research design with impossibly low power to detect him.” The question, however, is what would your loosening of the filters entail? It would entail taking personal experience, uncorroborated by any public observation or evidence, as dispositive about existence claims. And that’s exactly what good epistemic practice can’t allow, because to do so would countenance any and all personally experienced encounters with God (or Zeus, Thor, or Osiris) to count as proof of God (or Zeus, Thor, or Osiris). With that as a filter setting, all personal experiences of alien abduction would count as good evidence for abduction, all paranormal experiences evidence for the paranormal, etc. Obviously this setting is way too liberal – we have to set the evidential bar higher such that what might be mere appearances aren’t naïvely taken for reality. We have to insist on public objects of observation, otherwise anything goes. You likely adopt this standard for all your other existential claims of any consequence (except for what transpires in your own mind as discussed in part one), so it seems inconsistent to make an exception when it comes to the existence of God.

    The *experience* of God’s presence in your life is undoubtedly real, but whether God is real is an empirical question that can only be answered by looking at the world using our best, most reliable modes of cognition. To take this position isn’t to be anti-theological or too epistemically demanding, but simply to apply the same worldview neutral epistemic standards we use for deciding any factual question of consequence.

  4. Time at last to take a closer look here again…

    You say “[Clark] is very concerned to achieve complete certainty before a putative piece of information is admitted into the realm of knowledge.” Not so. I only want our knowledge claims to be based on the best intersubjective evidence and theory going. I’m not sure that we’ll ever gain complete certainty about reality, but some sorts of evidence are more reliable than others and some theories are better than others according to widely accepted criteria of explanatory adequacy and transparency.

    I’ll accept that correction, Tom. You’re not looking for complete certainty, but you do want your knowledge to be subjected to the best possible tests or criteria.

    But the assertions I make aren’t primarily or centrally anti-theological, in fact I specifically point out they apply to secular as well as religious agendas.

    Again I think this is accurate in one sense. Your assertions are not specifically pointed toward theological claims. They do, however, have the inevitable effect of ruling out most theological claims by definition. Your epistemological filters are designed, by effect if not by intent, to admit only the natural world into knowledge. By your criteria, humans cannot by any means whatever know whether there is a non-natural, spiritual, or supernatural world.

    They are primarily concerned with defending good epistemic practice: don’t take appearances at face value, honor intersubjectivity and science instead of disdaining them, and be governed by rational rules of evidence.

    How do you know, Tom, that this is good epistemic practice? Is this a result of empirical studies? Is it the result of a scientific study? Can we all see, touch, weigh, measure it intersubjectively? Is there evidence for it? Is it possible that this is just something you’ve just taken at face value?

    I hope that doesn’t come across as badgering or peppering with questions; I fear it might. I mean it in all sincerity. Just as in the previous thread I have suggested your insulation requirement does not mean its own standard, I wonder whether your standards here for good epistemic practice actually defeat your own epistemic practice.

    When followed, these practices tend to unify our understanding of what exists, not divide the world into the natural and supernatural, or at least that’s where they’ve taken us thus far.

    Now you’ve added another value to your list: unified knowledge. Why is that valuable? What if it’s just not true that the world is unified or monistic?

    The question, however, is what would your loosening of the filters entail? It would entail taking personal experience, uncorroborated by any public observation or evidence, as dispositive about existence claims.

    How loose did you think I was suggesting these filters be, Tom? I think that claims need to be subjected to evidence and rational consideration. But I’m including history and philosophy among those tests, which I do not see you doing, at least so far.

    That leads to a question related to your sentence, “We have to insist on public objects of observation, otherwise anything goes.” What qualifies something as a “public object of observation”? Does it have to be strictly empirical, in the sense of that which can be weighed, measured, counted, photographed? (I include in that category that which can be weighed, measured, etc. indirectly, as for example particles in a cloud chamber.)

    To take this position isn’t to be anti-theological or too epistemically demanding, but simply to apply the same worldview neutral epistemic standards we use for deciding any factual question of consequence.

    This seems problematical. Do we use those standards, really, in deciding factual matters relating to ethics, or values, or whether she loves me or loves me not? It doesn’t seem to me that we do. Now, ethics and values and relationships are all very difficult issues on which to come to agreed answers; but it would seem that by your standards, we would have to decide in advance that there can be no knowledge of these things, ever.

    The curious thing about that last statement is that it’s a knowledge statement. Does it fit your epistemic standards? I don’t see how.

    Thanks in advance for your response.

  5. Issue: Is the insulation requirement biased against supernaturalism?

    Tom G. says:

    Your epistemological filters are designed, by effect if not by intent, to admit only the natural world into knowledge. By your criteria, humans cannot by any means whatever know whether there is a non-natural, spiritual, or supernatural world.

    No, since as I pointed out in Part 1, you yourself accept science as supporting claims to the existence of the supernatural, and I have repeatedly said that science doesn’t logically debar its existence; it’s just that there isn’t good evidence for it at the moment (you disagree). Are there reliable modes of knowing that are applicable to the non-natural world as opposed to the natural that I’ve ignored? You’ve mentioned history and philosophy as the two main ways that Christians justify their beliefs, but these are not particularly friendly or sensitive to the supernatural. And we agree, as discussed in Part 1, that uncorroborated personal experience can’t be adduced to support objective knowledge claims.

    Issue: justifying empiricism as good epistemic practice.

    You say

    How do you *know*, Tom C., that this [science, intersubjectivity, and not taking appearances at face value] is good epistemic practice? Is this a result of empirical studies? Is it the result of a scientific study? Can we all see, touch, weigh, measure it intersubjectively? Is there evidence for it? Is it possible that this is just something you’ve just taken at face value?

    If you look at how you decide factual questions, you’ll see that for the most part you look for intersubjective evidence and confirmation. Your life experience (indeed, everyone’s life experience) attests to the fact that factual claims are most reliable when backed up by publicly accessible objects and observations in principle available to any observer. You regularly stake your life and your health on technology and expertise founded in such claims, not on unverified appearances. You don’t take your own uncorroborated intuitions, or others’, as authoritative when trusting any real-world decision of consequence. So on the face of it, and on further inspection, it’s uncontroversially *rational* to be an empiricist about factual claims of any importance. Why suppose claims about God and the ultimate nature of reality are exceptions to this good epistemic practice?

    This is not to say, as you properly point out, that history (an intersubjective pursuit) and philosophy (governed by rules of inference and necessarily responsive to empirical facts) don’t play important roles in justifying belief. But these are *additional* constraints on belief; they aren’t particularly friendly or sensitive to supernatural phenomena or particularly supportive of anti-naturalism in general. The reason I focused on the theological distortions of science and theists’ defense of first person data is because these epistemic bad practices are custom made to justify supernatural claims (and secular ideological and self-interested claims as well, not the focus of our debate).

    Me: “When followed, these [epistemic] practices tend to unify our understanding of what exists, not divide the world into the natural and supernatural, or at least that’s where they’ve taken us thus far.”

    You replied: “Now you’ve added another value to your list: unified knowledge. Why is that valuable? What if it’s just not true that the world is unified or monistic?”

    In saying “these practices tend to unify our understanding of what exists” I wasn’t asserting a value, simply making an observation. As I’ve said repeatedly, it could turn out that dualism carries the day.

    You say

    Do we use those standards, really, in deciding factual matters relating to ethics, or values, or whether she loves me or loves me not? It doesn’t seem to me that we do. Now, ethics and values and relationships are all very difficult issues on which to come to agreed answers; but it would seem that by your standards, we would have to decide in advance that there can be no knowledge of these things, ever.

    Right, which is why I never claimed that intersubjectivity and science apply to, or are decisive in *all* domains (that’s scientism), but they do apply to empirical questions of what potentially exists in the world, such as God.

    Issue: ways of validating belief.

    You say

    I think that claims need to be subjected to evidence and rational consideration. But I’m including history and philosophy among those tests, which I do not see you doing, at least so far.

    I’ve duly noted in previous remarks that you’re right about this: history and philosophy are applicable to deciding the question of God’s existence. But they offer no special support to an affirmative answer, only add more constraints.

    Issue: on what constitutes a public object.

    You ask:

    What qualifies something as a “public object of observation”? Does it have to be strictly empirical, in the sense of that which can be weighed, measured, counted, photographed? (I include in that category that which can be weighed, measured, etc. indirectly, as for example particles in a cloud chamber.)

    Basically, yes. Public objects are those things to which anyone in principle could observe, although of course in practice we don’t bother to make the observations ourselves, but leave it to trusted specialists.

  6. Tom C., greetings again. I’m sorry to be slow responding, but I’m still running low on energy with this pneumonia. It’s getting better, I think, but it’s a slow process. At least writing isn’t a hugely physical activity.

    Issue: Is the insulation requirement biased against supernaturalism?

    You wrote,

    Are there reliable modes of knowing that are applicable to the non-natural world as opposed to the natural that I’ve ignored? You’ve mentioned history and philosophy as the two main ways that Christians justify their beliefs, but these are not particularly friendly or sensitive to the supernatural.

    On the contrary, there is considerable support for theism and Christianity in both of these disciplines. I wrote about this yesterday. Christianity is a record of God’s involvement in real history, and real history supports this to a remarkable extent. This is not the place to go into all the evidences, but I must at least point out they cannot be swept aside as easily as you have tried to do here.

    Issue: justifying empiricism as good epistemic practice.

    Your answer is summarized,

    So on the face of it, and on further inspection, it’s uncontroversially *rational* to be an empiricist about factual claims of any importance. Why suppose claims about God and the ultimate nature of reality are exceptions to this good epistemic practice?

    You’ve ducked the question, Tom. You insist that empiricism is good epistemic practice, in fact that it is the only good epistemic approach. You justify this by showing that we practice it a lot, and we rely on it a lot. This is inadequate:

    (S1)
    A) Empiricism is a common employed, effective practice for acquiring knowledge, therefore
    B) Empiricism is the only effective practice for acquiring knowledge.

    I hope I’m not guilty of overstatement here, but I see this failing in two rather spectacular ways. First, it is circular. In essence the claim is that by experience, we know that we can know only through experience. Furthermore, it is an obvious non sequitur. (B) quite obviously does not follow from (A).

    In saying “these practices tend to unify our understanding of what exists” I wasn’t asserting a value, simply making an observation. As I’ve said repeatedly, it could turn out that dualism carries the day.

    Please allow me to say that you could have fooled me on that!

    But this is puzzling:

    I never claimed that intersubjectivity and science apply to, or are decisive in *all* domains (that’s scientism), but they do apply to empirical questions of what potentially exists in the world, such as God.

    Yes, intersubjectivity and science apply, but you treat it as if they rule, as if they are decisive. This remains non only unproved, but also self-defeating, for your basis for relying on empiricism in this way, which I summarized in S1, is inadequate in the extreme.

    Thank you for your clarification on “public object.”

  7. Issue: ways of validating belief

    You wrote

    On the contrary, there is considerable support for theism and Christianity in both of these disciplines [history and philosophy]. I wrote about this yesterday. Christianity is a record of God’s involvement in real history, and real history supports this to a remarkable extent. This is not the place to go into all the evidences, but I must at least point out they cannot be swept aside as easily as you have tried to do here.

    As I said in response to you in the first post, I didn’t mean to suggest that history and philosophy can’t provide support for the supernatural, only that they are not biased in its favor. There are of course radically differing opinions in and outside the academy on whether in fact they do provide support.

    Issue: justifying empiricism as good epistemic practice.

    You said

    [Clark claims]:
    A) Empiricism is a commonly employed, effective practice for acquiring knowledge, therefore
    B) Empiricism is the only effective practice for acquiring knowledge.
    I hope I’m not guilty of overstatement here, but I see this failing in two rather spectacular ways. First, it is circular. In essence the claim is that by experience, we know that we can know only through experience. Furthermore, it is an obvious non sequitur. (B) quite obviously does not follow from (A).

    I’ve conceded the relevance of history and philosophical arguments to the issue of God’s existence and acquiring knowledge generally, so I don’t think that empiricism “is the only effective practice for acquiring knowledge,” so we are in agreement on this. But I also think (and think you agree) that intersubjective empiricism is necessary to support knowledge claims that aren’t strictly a priori. That is, in addition to using logic and reason, we have to look at the world intersubjectively to establish existence claims. Our everyday experience in how factual beliefs are validated helps establish the rule that empiricism is a necessary element of good epistemic practice. This isn’t viciously circular, but simply an instance of the rule itself.

    You write

    Yes, intersubjectivity and science apply, but you treat it as if they rule, as if they are decisive. This remains not only unproved, but also self-defeating, for your basis for relying on empiricism in this way, which I summarized in S1, is inadequate in the extreme.

    It seems to me that intersubjectivity plays a necessary role in deciding factual claims, so without some sort of intersubjective confirmation, a claim remains unjustified. I think you agree that intersubjectivity is necessary to establish God’s existence; that is, we can’t simply argue our way to God using pure reason, otherwise you wouldn’t put such emphasis on historical evidence, which is intersubjective. So it seems to me that you should agree that intersubjective empiricism *is* decisive in the sense that if no public confirmation were forthcoming, the claim that God exists would remain unjustified. Since we agree that intersubjective empiricism has virtue as a mode of justifying beliefs (you wrote in the first post that “I agree that both history and philosophy are intersubjective disciplines” and “I do not wish to convey that intersubjectivity is a bad thing to have”), I won’t pursue further the issue of how we justify it.

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