Divided by Epistemology

How do you know?

Desert dawn
Image credit: Jessie Eastland — CC BY-SA 4.0

Only a few thousand years ago a curious youngster wondered why the sun appears bright in the sky each morning, and then disappears each evening. She observed this for many days, wondered what could be happening, and asked her parents, family members, friends, and wise people throughout her tribe. Although we can’t know what story she was told, it is likely she was told a similar story by each trusted friend she asked. The story might have described gods in chariots, beasts swallowing the sun, the sun attached to a celestial sphere, or some other fascinating myth. The story was fun to tell and retell, and everyone seemed to agree it was the answer.

As she grew older, she met someone from a neighboring tribe. During their friendly conversation, they shared stories each had learned about why the sun travels across the sky. They soon discovered that each tribe used different stories to explain the travels of the sun. How could this be? What story was correct? Who could she trust? How could she know what is true? The decision was easy for her. She trusted the people in the tribe where she was born and raised. They taught her everything she knew, and they all agreed on the stories that explained her world. Strangers from other tribes had strange ideas that could not be trusted. It was safer, simpler, and more comfortable to accept the lessons she learned in her own tribe.

How do you know? How do you decide what to believe? That is easy, believe what trusted friends from your tribe tell you. Remember their stories and you will become a wise and loyal member of your tribe.

And then came ages of enlightenment and our worlds quickly became complicated! Philosophers, scientists, charlatans, prophets, and storytellers claimed expertise in various subject areas and began to contradict tribal doctrines upheld by various religious authorities, political leaders, other powerful people, and popular public opinion.

Galileo got in trouble when he dared to tell a new story based on evidence that contradicted the biblical story that the earth was the center of the universe. Beginning with microscopes and telescopes, many scientific instruments now extend our investigations beyond direct personal observation. Exploration of the universe reveals that reality is vast, complex, and dynamic and reality exists far beyond our direct experience, often in surprising ways. To understand our world as it is we now rely on studies carefully performed by experts who are guided by evidence, wherever it may lead.

How do you decide what you believe?

Today we are flooded with a cacophony of information from a wide variety of sources that may or may not be reliable. This includes news, opinions, satire, rumors, gossip, traditions, speculation, sales pitches, social media posts, and other sources. Each of us has the opportunity, and indeed the duty, to decide how we will choose what we consider to be true, what we consider to be false, what we regard as unsettled, and what we consider to be unknown. It is inconsistent to hold firmly to some belief without being able to describe how you came to hold that belief. We each have an opportunity, and an obligation, to know how we know.

The methods we use to choose our beliefs is known as our epistemology — how we know. When choosing your epistemology, it is helpful to consider these questions. How can we wisely choose among various epistemologies? How can we know if your epistemology is better than mine? What is the purpose of an epistemology?

Various epistemologies can be broadly classified as being primarily reality based or affiliation based. Thinking scientifically is a reality-based epistemology. It relies on careful evaluation of evidence, and a global perspective combined with a variety of procedural safeguards designed to defend against our many cognitive biases. Affiliation based epistemologies are traditional and often depend on stories, anecdotes, affiliation toward authorities, loyalties, and friends; allegiances to political, religious, or traditional ideologies, along with convenience, comfort, and familiarity. Affiliation based epistemologies often prioritize signaling tribal loyalty over thorough investigation.

Today we are struggling through the transition from tribal cultures toward a global culture. Our way of knowing — our epistemology — needs to improve to become more reliable.

Debate team members, trial lawyers, and others skilled in the art of argumentation and rhetoric, can persuasively argue any side of an issue. Do not be easily convinced after hearing only one side of a controversy. Maintain an open mind and seek out information from intellectually honest sources representing a variety of viewpoints. Then carefully evaluate the evidence for and against alternative propositions before deciding what to believe. Beliefs that are comfortable may not correspond to reality; they may not be true beliefs. When you do not know, be comfortable saying you do not know. It can be very liberating to recognize each of us is at least 99.9% ignorant of the knowledge in the world.

Rather than asking if your beliefs are comfortable, ask if your way of knowing is reliable. Dismiss nascent, transient, and incoherent epistemologies. Recognize that astronomy provides more reliable predictions than astrology. Insist that your way of knowing be reliable — the answers, predictions and forecasts correspond to reality as it is best understood. Furthermore, expect consilience — notice if evidence from a variety of independent unrelated sources converge toward the same strong conclusion. Thinking scientifically provides the most reliable methods to evaluate factual claims. Choose dialogue over debate.

We are living in one world, divided by two epistemologies. Many of the issues that divide us today, such as gun violence, reproductive rights, global warming, the role of government, tax policy, racial equality, gender equality, religious differences, political ideologies, and even pandemic response are rooted in our epistemological divide.

We choose our beliefs; we choose our epistemology. We can choose a reliable epistemology, and therefore choose true beliefs.

We can know how we know. We can learn to face facts and evaluate evidence. We can recognize that we live in one world and reality is our common ground. We can seek true beliefs, transcend conflict, and learn to live wisely.

I previously published this story on Wikiversity. It is repeated here to reach an expanded audience.

Seeking real good.