Wednesday, January 03, 2007

knowledge vs. belief: a tempest in a celestial teapot

"Yesod hayesodos v’amud hachochmos leyda she'yesh matzuy rishon…" (Rambam, Yesodei haTorah 1:1)

What is the difference between “knowledge” and “belief”? Whether or not the Rambam’s use of “leyda”, to know G-d exists, as opposed to “l’ha’amin”, to believe, is significant is a matter of debate, but to even suggest such a distinction (as many have) presupposes a distinction between the two terms.

Until the 1960’s, most philosophers defined knowledge as JTB – Justified True Belief. Something is termed knowledge, not just belief, if:
P is true;
S believes P to be true;
S is justified in believing P to be true.
While I don’t know if the Rambam subscribed to that definition of knowledge, I do know that at least one philosopher has made an oft-cited argument against religion that seems to at least embellish if not distort that definition, and those who cite him neither defend that embellishment or think it even worth mentioning despite the philosophical Pandora’s box of questions it opens.

Bertrand Russell’s famous celestial teapot argument goes as follows:

If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.

Variations on the same theme compare religion with the likes of a theory postulating the existence of invisible pink unicorns (IPU theory) which cannot be disproven because they are invisible. Clearly, an irrefutable proposition does not make reality so.

Without bothering to mention it, Russell has snuck into JTB the added criterion of falsifiability – unless there is a way to disprove a statement, it has no cognitive value, meaning it can never be termed “knowledge”. Unless there is some way to disprove the assertion that a teapot is in orbit, or that G-d exists, or some other dogma, all the justification in the world cannot according to Russell convert these beliefs to knowledge.

Is there really no such thing as knowledge that does not meet the falsifiability test? Most atheists claim that their lack of belief does not make them immoral, just unreligious – undoubtedly, even atheists know “It is wrong to kill”. But here we run into a brick wall, as there is no way such a statement can be disproven either logically or empirically. So is such a statement knowledge or merely belief?

If you are willing to go so far as to say we believe murder is wrong but it is not the same as knowledge, then try this: put your hand in your pocket and pull out your wallet. Most of us would not hesitate to say, “I know my wallet exists”. Yet, such a claim fails the test of falsifiability! Even if I searched the entire world and could not find my wallet, that is not a proof that it does not exist, just that my search has failed.

We all know that murder is wrong and that the wallet before our eyes exists even such knowledge is immutable to tests of falsifiability. In fact, all ethical or existential claims cannot pass the test of falsifiability – all we are left with is a test of verifiability, or judging the strength of the evidence in favor of these statements as a measure of their cognitive value. But no one can fail to recognize that immutability to the falsifiability test does not render these statements false.

Even Karl Popper, one of the great philosopher’s of science who was a strong advocate of the falsifiability test, only used it as a means of demarcating science from non-science, not as a measure of truth or of knowledge. He wrote, “The problem which troubled me at the time was neither, "When is a theory true?" nor "When is a theory acceptable?" my problem was different. I wished to distinguish between science and pseudo-science; knowing very well that science often errs, and that pseudoscience may happen to stumble on the truth.”

I’m afraid Bertrand Russell’s great proof amounts to nothing more than a tempest in a celestial teapot, proving no more than the fact that existential claims of G-d’s existence are not a scientific theories – a proposition that was never under dispute.

I’m not out to bash anyone over the head with rhetorical fluff in the hopes of winning an argument, so I feel compelled to add that there may be good reasons why you would want to add a test of falsifiabilty or indefeasibility to the standard definition of JTB (it is one way of getting around Gettier’s objection), and good reasons why you may not want to use verifiability alone as your test of what knowledge is. You might certainly draw distinctions between my examples and the analogy to G-d’s existence. But these considerations get into the nitty-gritty of epistemology and probably are beyond my ability to discuss well, or to keep you reading much further.

Which leads me to my final points: If the likes of Dawkins and Harris and others in the jblogsphere and beyond who follow their lead in attacking religion were seriously interested only in the “dispassionate pursuit of truth”, shouldn’t they be the ones delving into this deeper nitty-gritty of epistemology rather than swallowing Russell’s proof uncritically, as if Russell was a prophet of some religious order?

Secondly, I wonder to what degree these posts are worth it. It takes a mild amount of intellectual effort to undo these “proofs” of atheism and expose their assumptions and reasoning. But in the end, no one suddenly becomes an atheist because they read Bertrand Russell, and no one will become a theist from reading my responses (don’t get me wrong - I would be delighted to know these posts do some good : ) Is there any value to “dah mah shetashiv” carried out in the blogsphere? Should we be concerned with so-called "anti-religion" proofs being so accessible and offer a response, or should we ignore the challenge and let the chips fall where they may?

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