Our August 5th 2018 service was a presentation and discussion of the subject of EPISTEMOLOGY, which is the philosophical subject of knowledge.
We considered the fact that what we suppose we know is a widely-varied assortment of things that we have personal and direct knowledge of, that we are told by others, or learn in school from teachers, books, magazines and journals, that we see in video presentations and documentaries, read in books and newspapers and that come to us from many other sources. But only the first of these do we really know, or know well enough to be qualified to, for example, give testimony about it in a court of law. A great deal of what we suppose that we know are things that have come from others that we trust and then believe with all the certitude as if we had discovered it on our own first-hand. Sometimes we understand very well the basis on which others hold what they impart to us and sometimes not. Yet in all these cases of second-hand knowledge we receive it through a much narrower channel and in much more ambiguous ways than our own direct experiences.
It may be said that we don't really know things unless we also know the sources and context of the direct personal experiences of those that originally gained the knowledge of the things. And, of course, in an age of propaganda and “fake news” that George Orwell first famously drew attention to, what we know can be manipulated so as to get us to behave in ways that we might not otherwise. We can be led to believe in things that are not so and we may be led to doubt things that we disbelieve at our peril. And to become invested emotionally in both cases. How, then, to avoid such hazards? Simply put, it is not an easy task. But skepticism in the scientific sense of remaining open to the possibility that we are mistaken either way is key. That we don't so much prove the truth of what is proposed as knowledge as much as disprove what we may tentatively think is the case is an important part of this. That's why it's called “trial and error.” Only in mathematics are there proofs of things.
We discussed the philosophical idea of knowledge as justified true belief. Here the idea is that we must have justification for belief, that we cannot have knowledge without our believing it, and that our knowledge must be actually true. But this last is the difficulty because no amount of the best and most compelling sort of justification can be considered foolproof. And, certainly, believing in things as strongly as it is possible to do does not make them true. In the case of “Gettier counter-examples” we may even believe what is well-justified and technically or broadly true but which in its specific application is innocently mistaken.
We discussed that, at the encouragment of Portland State University (in Oregon) Professor of Philosophy Peter Boghossian, beginning with his book A Manual for Creating Atheists, some Freethinkers are engaging in “Street Epistemology.” The idea here is to have conversations with strangers one encounters in public about whatever beliefs are most important to them. These take the form of questioning/exploring the grounds of their beliefs, whatever they may be, in a kind of Socratic dialog. Videos posted on youtube show that these encounters can be quite interesting and not at all the sort of harangues that unbelievers associate with theistic “Street Evangelism.”
There was a lively discussion about these issues and especially about how several of us came to our beliefs, often by coming to doubt what we had previously been led to believe.
At our next service on September 2nd, Rex Burks and Owen Younger, two atheists interested in the opinions and beliefs of Christians, will return. Their subject then will be “Answering The Five Christian Claims.” This will be about five generic arguments that Christians typically and dependably make, claims that "everyone knows are true." They plan to critique these claims about familiar faith-beliefs and explore why those claims are wrong and wrong-headed.
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