Critical thinking means never having to say you’re certain.

This was originally intended as a brief reply to the comment by William J Murray but it sort of grew into something a little longer so I thought, since everyone else is doing it, I’d put it up here.

William J Murray:
I think that any fair reading of UD will show that the vast majority of pro-ID posters there, and certainly the moderators and subject contributors, are not “anti-science” at all, nor “sneer” at science; rather, they have what is IMO a legitimate concern over the anti-religious, anti-theist, pro-materialist agenda that many of those currently in positions of power in the institutions of science blatantly demonstrate.

I would agree that not all contributors to UD are anti-science but there is, nonetheless, a prominent strand of such thinking there. Many of the original posts mock the speculative excesses of evolutionary psyschology, for example, or seem to gloat over instances of where science has apparently got it wrong. Those occasions where the author of such comments has got it wrong themselves pass largely unremarked. The overall impression is of an anti-science advocacy site.

I will grant that there are a few contributors to UD who are critical of the perceived atheist/materialist stance of many scientists in public fora as improper because it associates science with atheism. They hold, as I do, that the most science can say on such questions is that, following Laplace, it has found no need for such hypotheses thus far. While it may be true that a majority of scientists hold atheistic views it is misleading to suggest that they are endorsed by science as a whole.

That said, my impression of UD is that the majority of contributors are critical of science because they believe it is hostile and threat to their religion. They feel that science is perceived as a source of knowledge that is more reliable and authoritative than that offered by the various faiths which is thereby undermined. One slightly amusing response is the attempt to cast science as just another religion. Those who do so seem to be oblivious to the contradiction: on the one hand, religion is presented as a way of knowing that is fully the equal of science, on the other hand, the authority of science is supposed to be undermined by calling it just another religion, implying that religion is a lesser form of knowledge and science is to be dragged down to that level. Unfortunately, much as they would like to, they can’t have it both ways

There is without doubt a very vocal group of scientists and advocates of science who believe that it does make religious beliefs untenable They highlight the harm that has been done – and is still being done – in the name of the various faiths as evidence that we would all be better off without it. My own view is that this is reactionary and most prominent in the United States. It is a response to the extreme hostility felt by many Americans towards any form of non-belief and the excessive influence of such religious beliefs on the society and politics of that country.

My own view is that it is true that, over the millennia, a great deal of blood has been spilled in the name of various religions. It is also true that huge numbers have been killed in the name of the various political ideologies, which were in some cases atheistic, that gained power in the twentieth century. I would argue that it is further true that trying to compare body counts is a pointless distraction. The real lesson to be taken is the dangers of absolutist thinking.

In spite of the posturing and boastfulness of some, we are mostly well aware of our own weakness and vulnerability. Instinctively, we crave the kind of reliable knowledge about the world in which we find ourselves that will give us a good handle on it and increase our chances of survival. We are all too easily seduced by anyone or any belief system which appears to offer such certainty, especially in times of heightened insecurity. The danger is that, once convinced of the absolute truth of such beliefs, there are some who will have no doubt that they are fully justified in doing almost anything to defend and promote such them. Thus we have the spectacle of William Lane Craig apparently feeling compelled to defend and justify the massacring of children, even though I have no doubt it is something he would never do himself, because it is something reported in his Bible as being required of believers and approved by his God.

Thus we come back to Oliver Cromwell’s impassioned plea, used as the motto for this blog:

I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.

363 thoughts on “Critical thinking means never having to say you’re certain.

  1. William J Murray: “To escape mental subjectivism, we must posit that mind has objective features that can properly used to discern (provisionally) true statements about reality.”

    Why do you say “mind” instead of “the mind”?

    Do you believe the mind, or any part of it, is somehow separate and external to the brain?

  2. What I know about your mind is based on what you yourself have told me.

    No, what you think you know about my mind is based on what you yourself have interpreted from me, from which you have no capacity to assert the “actual” state of my mind unless you assume my mind actually exists beyond your subjective interpretation, AND if you assume you have a means of evaluating information coming from my mind in a presumably objective manner, AND that I am generating text from a similar enough system obeying presumably objectively valid rules so that your interpretation can even remotely access what I actually mean.

    You once again have made the very assumptions I have argued you must make to meaningfully argue any point.

    Note that both have used their personal senses and their subjective interpretation of the sensory input they received, to make a statement about “objective reality”.

    Another claim of objective reality fact.

    Note that William is not talking about the same “objective reality” that Toronto was.

    Another claim of objective reality fact, based on assumptions of both an objective reality and a mutually binding, objective information encoding/decoding and evaluation methodology extending from my mind to yours.

    He is instead discussing human-originated concepts and claiming they exist outside of us, in that area of matter that is **not** human and where things like bricks exist.

    I’m not claiming they exist outside of us; I’m claiming we must assume they exist to make meaningful arguments and to have a rational worldview.

    I’m also pointing out that you are necessarily assuming exactly what I have said you must assume and you exhibit that assumption with every post you make. Because you are apparently ideologically blind to those assumptions doesn’t mean your arguments don’t rely on them and imply them with every sentence.

  3. So, under your proposed system, how do you discern which features of your mind are *objective*, so that you can use those *objective features* for checking the errors of the *subjective features*? Because without clear criteria to tell these two classes of mental features apart, your proposed method for *checking for errors of thought and guarding against false, subjective interpretation* isn’t getting off the ground. At all.

    If there is no such means of (presumably) objective error-checking (and information interpretation evaluation protocols), then there is no way to get past the subjectivist/solipsist impasse.

    I’ve already posited that at least logic and mathematics are necessarily objective mental commodities (in order to maintain a rational worldview) that can be used to arbit the validity of subjective mental commodities. If one accepts that there are self-evidently true moral statements (just as there are self-evidently true logical statements and mathematical statements), then what morality refers to – the good, or human purpose – would also be an objective commodity of mind.

    Uh, no. Your premises are incoherent, irrational, and so far you have utterly failed to show how they are supposed to get past any impasse.

    Obviously, I disagree. That you or others find them to be so doesn’t make them so. Obviously, if we assume logic is an objective commodity of all minds, and it is functionally correlational to what objectively exists, THEN it is what otherwise subjective interpreters can use to arbit their subjective views and arguments concerning what objectively exists and discern (albeit provisionally and with capacity for error) what is subjective interpretation and what is objectively true or factual.

    If we assume “logic” is nothing more than a subjective set of rules invented by humans and have no objective status whatsoever, then one’s individual, subjective system of investigating, arbiting, inferring, and concluding things about anything cannot get past the subjectivist/solipsist impasse

    Once again: without the assumption that an objectively existent world (that exists outside of our interpretations of it), and the assumption an objectively valid means of information transmission and evaluation, there is no warrant or assumed means to get past the subjectivist/solipsist impasse.

    If your position is that we cannot ever get past that impasse no matter what, then I subjectively interpret your commentary to mean: “As always, you are right, William.” and you must categorically admit that my interpretation is as valid as any other – including your own.

    But, like toronto, every statement you make in your commentary reflects the two premises I have said are necessary. Frankly, if any of us actually believed that the subjectivist/solipsist impasse couldn’t be bridged, and didn’t assume (whether we realized it or not) that an objective world exists and that we have an objective (and free) means of transferring and evaluating information, none of us would bother making arguments at all, because we would have no expectation that anyone else could understand anything we said the way we said it, or that any of it mattered whatsoever in any meaningful sense.

  4. Do you believe the mind, or any part of it, is somehow separate and external to the brain?

    Do believe an objective brain exists outside of the representations of a brain held in your mind?

    Your question assumes the factual existence of an objectively-existent world and the correlational capacity to objectively examine and arbit your mental interpretations.

    Your cart is before the horse; if all you have with which to observe, interpret, examine, evaluate and conclude is a subjective ruler (a purely subjective mind), you cannot make claims about or imply anything about any supposedly “objective” commodity, facts, or states whatsoever.

    But, as we have seen, you cannot go a single post without directly implying the assumptions in question.

  5. madbat089 said: “So, under your proposed system, how do you discern which features of your mind are *objective*, so that you can use those *objective features* for checking the errors of the *subjective features*? Because without clear criteria to tell these two classes of mental features apart, your proposed method for *checking for errors of thought and guarding against false, subjective interpretation* isn’t getting off the ground. At all.”
    William J Murray:

    If there is no such means of (presumably) objective error-checking (and information interpretation evaluation protocols), then there is no way to get past the subjectivist/solipsist impasse.

    I’ve already posited that at least logic and mathematics are necessarily objective mental commodities (in order to maintain a rational worldview) that can be used to arbit the validity of subjective mental commodities. If one accepts that there are self-evidently true moral statements (just as there are self-evidently true logical statements and mathematical statements), then what morality refers to – the good, or human purpose – would also be an objective commodity of mind.

    None of what you say here is an answer to my question. I didn’t ask what you *assume* to be objective mental features, I asked how you can *discern* which ones of your mental features are objective. Simply assuming that certain features are objective helps you not one iota in *checking for errors of thought and guarding against false, subjective interpretation*. That should be obvious. You haven’t gotten out from under your subjective assumptions about what is an error, what is false, and what is subjective.

    Obviously, I disagree. That you or others find [my premises to be incoherent and irrational] doesn’t make them so.

    Well, at this point, your disagreement is not based on any successful argument of yours or successful objection to any argument of mine (read this thread carefully for confirmation). Under your very own definition of rationality, with which I agreed, your premises are irrational.

    Obviously, if we assume logic is an objective commodity of all minds, and it is functionally correlational to what objectively exists, THEN it is what otherwise subjective interpreters can use to arbit their subjective views and arguments concerning what objectively exists and discern (albeit provisionally and with capacity for error) what is subjective interpretation and what is objectively true or factual. If we assume “logic” is nothing more than a subjective set of rules invented by humans and have no objective status whatsoever, then one’s individual, subjective system of investigating, arbiting, inferring, and concluding things about anything cannot get past the subjectivist/solipsist impasse

    Same error as above.
    And I repeat: the only thing we need to arbit our subjective arguments and views using logic is mutual agreement on what we mean by *logic*, and by the terms we argue about. But I’m not holding my breath that you will try that. It would lead you to agree with conclusions of mine that you really don’t like.

    If your position is that we cannot ever get past that impasse no matter what, then I subjectively interpret your commentary to mean: “As always, you are right, William.” and you must categorically admit that my interpretation is as valid as any other – including your own.

    What in the world makes you assume that I am stuck in some sort of solipist’s impasse??? Wasn’t my description of how I navigate the world a clear enough illustration that I am nowhere near a solipist?? I act, and interact in the world that I perceive. How is that a solipist worldview or impasse??? YOU seem to be the one stuck in solipism with your attempt to somehow attach some *assumed* outside reference frame that is unaccessible to you onto the world you simply perceive.

  6. Toronto: ” Do you believe the mind, or any part of it, is somehow separate and external to the brain?”

    William J Murray: “Do believe an objective brain exists outside of the representations of a brain held in your mind?”

    In any debate, some level of respect is required.

    While we sometimes may get frustrated and throw a backhand at someone, underneath it all, we have to consider each other as equal human beings.

    I will attempt to answer any question asked of me.

    If I have overlooked a question and the answer is important to a point you want to make or better understand, repeat the question adding that it is important to you, and I will answer that question.

    I asked you a simple question but what I got back was not an answer.

    It was another question.

    Gurus and teachers sometimes use this technique on their students.

    I, however, am not your student.

    So here is a question I need answered in order to both understand and make a further point, depending on the answer.

    Do you believe the mind, or any part of it, is somehow separate and external to the brain?

  7. I asked how I asked how you can *discern* which ones of your mental features are objective.

    You cannot discern if your discerning process is valid any more than you can use a ruler to check the validity of its own length, which is why one must make the assumption that it has the capacity to be objectively valid, and why – for the hundredth time – I’ve reiterated that all arguments about worldviews must begin with assumptions.

    Simply assuming that certain features are objective helps you not one iota in *checking for errors of thought and guarding against false, subjective interpretation*.

    Sure it does, because without such an assumption, one cannot even begin such a task. Whether with correct or incorrect assumptions, the only way to begin any evaluation of data and produce an argument thereof in any meaningful way is to assume (1) an objective world exists, and (2) we have the capacity to discern true statements (process objectively valid information to conclusion) about that world.

    The idea that our debate makes any sense or matters at all fundamentally relies upon those assumptions.

    Well, at this point, your disagreement is not based on any successful argument of yours or successful objection to any argument of mine (read this thread carefully for confirmation). Under your very own definition of rationality, with which I agreed, your premises are irrational.

    Obviously, I disagree with this assessment as well. Ironically, you again expect me to be able to use some methodology of information processing that will yield conclusions that correlate to your information processing, which requires both of the assumptions you are claiming that I have failed to make my case for. Every post you and Toronto make validates my case because your statements are claims about a presumably objective world that we can presumably process information from and utilize a uniform methodology to reach necessarily corresponding conclusions about.

    IF you were actually employing subjective premises – that we cannot expect to discern true statements about an objective reality through the use of an objectively correlational evaluation process, you could not reach a conclusion that I am “wrong” or that I haven’t succeed in my argument. Your invitation to read the post and come to the same conclusion necessarily requires the very premises you argue against – that the post objectively exists, and that we both have access to some objectively valid means of evaluating the post.

    And I repeat: the only thing we need to arbit our subjective arguments and views using logic is mutual agreement on what we mean by *logic*, and by the terms we argue about.

    Why should I care about agreeing with subjective definitions of terms, if those terms and the resulting conclusions do not refer to anything objectively valid, binding, or producing any necessary consequences one way or another? Again, this is nothing but sophistry.

    I act, and interact in the world that I perceive. How is that a solipist worldview or impasse???

    That is what solipsists do; they also do not assume there is an objective world outside of their mind, and also (consequently) do not assume there is any presumably objective means to discern true statements about that world.

    The solipsist’s impasse is that if two people do not agree on any objective third-party arbiter of their views (which would be impossible for a solipsist, since for them no objective world is presumed to exist), there is no binding means for them to resolve contradictory claims.

    Therefore, if I take your view that logic is only what I define it to be, and “valid” is only what I define it to be, then if you and I disagree on what those things mean and reach contradictory conclusions, we are at an impasse because neither of us accept that there is any objectively binding arbiter for our disagreement.

    But, your post reveals that you don’t really believe that, because the obvious implication you made is that if I read the (presumably) objectively real post, and if I apply some objectively valid means of evaluating the posts, I will come to the same conclusion as you about what I have and have not succeeded in doing.

    Although you argue against my premises, you and toronto employ them – in fact, must employ them, to tender any meaningful argument – with every post.

  8. William J Murray: “I provisionally believe some aspects of what we call the mind exist independently of the brain.”

    If not in the brain, and I presume nowhere else inside us, where would these things exist?

  9. William J Murray: “Your invitation to read the post and come to the same conclusion necessarily requires the very premises you argue against – that the post objectively exists, and that we both have access to some objectively valid means of evaluating the post.”

    But yet again, you use the term “objective reality” in two ways.

    In the above quote of yours, “objective reality” refers to the place where tables, bricks and blog posts exist.

    The “objective reality” you use when discussing worldviews however, is the place where things like a “common purpose for all humans” and the “rules of logic” reside.

    They are not the same.

    Any theist of any type I walk up to will agree with me that I am holding a brick in my hand if I ask him, “What’s in my hand”.

    If however I ask a Hindu and a Christian to tell me what the “moral code” is, I will get different answers, because that concept of “moral code”, is “subjective” and doesn’t reside in “my” “objective reality”.

    When I respond to you, I am using “my” definition of “objective reality”, not yours.

    You can’t claim I’m using your definition since I just told you I’m not, and I’ve made it clear how they differ.

  10. William J Murray: You cannot discern if your discerning process is valid

    Which is EXACTLY why your entire argument fails. If you CANNOT discern whether your discerning process is valid, you CANNOT claim that what you discern by it is valid!

    one must make the assumption that it has the capacity to be objectively valid, and why – for the hundredth time – I’ve reiterated that all arguments about worldviews must begin with assumptions.

    And for the hundredth time: under MY definition of objectivity and validity, my way of acting and reacting in the world, including my ways of discerning objective truths, are completely objectively valid! You have not even challenged that argument of mine.

    Madbat089 said: “Simply assuming that certain features are objective helps you not one iota in *checking for errors of thought and guarding against false, subjective interpretation*.

    Sure it does, because without such an assumption, one cannot even begin such a task.

    You just tried to justify the truth of a claim with the statement that IF that claim is true, it has consequences you desire. That doesn’t even begin to be a justification for the truth of the claim itself. Please provide justification or evidence HOW *assuming that certain features are objective helps you in checking for errors of thought and guarding against false, subjective interpretation*.

    Ironically, you again expect me to be able to use some methodology of information processing that will yield conclusions that correlate to your information processing, which requires both of the assumptions you are claiming that I have failed to make my case for. Every post you and Toronto make validates my case because your statements are claims about a presumably objective world that we can presumably process information from and utilize a uniform methodology to reach necessarily corresponding conclusions about.

    No. You haven’t read or understood anything I said about reality and objectivity.

    IF you were actually employing subjective premises – that we cannot expect to discern true statements about an objective reality through the use of an objectively correlational evaluation process, […]
    Why should I care about agreeing with subjective definitions of terms, if those terms and the resulting conclusions do not refer to anything objectively valid, binding, or producing any necessary consequences one way or another?Again, this is nothing but sophistry.

    Again, this has no resemblance to anything I ever wrote. I said repeatedly that I do discern true statements about an objective reality. I have no idea who you think you are talking to, but it ain’t me. But again, I should be used to that behavior of yours by now.

    madbat089 said: “I act, and interact, with the world that I perceive.”

    That is what solipsists do; they also do not assume there is an objective world outside of their mind, and also (consequently) do not assume there is any presumably objective means to discern true statements about that world.

    And here goes classic WJM: making up his own definitions of words: Solipists are people that act and interact with the world they perceive. Good luck with that definition. As far as I can tell, the majority of mankind are solipists under that definition. Note that you then imply that I *do not assume there is an objective world outside of my mind*. That’s pretty much the opposite of what I said earlier:

    “Within the world that my senses tell me about, you are a person that is separate from me. Things that I say and do and perceive have consequences for me (i.e. matter to me), and some things that you say and do have consequences for me (matter to me). And if you say that something matters to you, I usually take your word for it, unless what you say is at odds with other experiences of mine in that same world. This is the reality I observe and the rules I discern about this reality, and they do not change with assumptions about some *assumed* outside reference frame that is unaccessible to me, because they operate WITHIN that reality (i.e. the only available reference frame). Under my understanding of *objectivity*, true means objectively valid, and reality is what I call the entirety of objective facts (a reminder: by objective facts I mean facts that can be observed by any qualified person that cares to look and that all subjective observers can agree upon)”

    if I take your view that logic is only what I define it to be, and “valid” is only what I define it to be, then if you and I disagree on what those things mean and reach contradictory conclusions, we are at an impasse because neither of us accept that there is any objectively binding arbiter for our disagreement.

    No. You still don’t get it. Even if you and I initially disagree what *logic* and *validity* mean, I can adopt the use of YOUR definitions of these terms for the sake of the argument, and examine your arguments under these definitions. My logical conclusions about your arguments are then meaningful and valid for anyone who uses these same definitions of *logic*.

    the obvious implication you made is that if I read the (presumably) objectively real post, and if I apply some objectively valid means of evaluating the posts, I will come to the same conclusion as you about what I have and have not succeeded in doing.

    Uh, yeah. I have made the point several times that under my use of the terms, my posts are objectively real. And an objectively valid means of evaluating the posts would be to evaluate them according to how the English speaking community has agreed to use the terms applied in these posts. But if that is not possible (as is repeatedly the case where you reject the use of terms as agreed to by the English speaking community), one can at least evaluate the posts for internal coherence and validity by consistently applying the definitions provided by the poster.

  11. William J Murray: You cannot discern if your discerning process is valid any more than you can use a ruler to check the validity of its own length, which is why one must make the assumption that it has the capacity to be objectively valid, and why – for the hundredth time – I’ve reiterated that all arguments about worldviews must begin with assumptions.

    If this is a consequence of your philosophy, then you are doing an excellent job of explaining why most scientists have a very low opinion of philosophy.

    In effect, you are saying that we must learn about the world with our hands tied behind our backs and wearing blindfolds. It is plainly absurd.

  12. William J Murray: “William J Murray: You cannot discern if your discerning process is valid any more than you can use a ruler to check the validity of its own length, which is why one must make the assumption that it has the capacity to be objectively valid, and why – for the hundredth time – I’ve reiterated that all arguments about worldviews must begin with assumptions.”

    It is not so much the assumptions you put forth as much as the “faith” you have in them.

    I believe you are trying to justify a worldview based on “faith” and are using “faith” in place of evidence.

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