Friday, 22 December 2006

The Clash of the Plausible

In a previous post we examined the concepts and contrast between evidence-based reasoning and faith-based reasoning as a resolution of the old "faith versus reason" debate. This line of thinking has triggered a number of insights, which I will share in future posts. Here I want to explore the no-mans land between these two forms of reasoning, the domain where we do not know if it is true but would typically like it to be, lets us call these speculative beliefs. This is important since, of course, everyone has many beliefs like this and the question we want to explore is not specifically how and when to find out, which can driven by interest, ability, time, size of the challenge and so on, but rather on what basis we have these beliefs in the first place - that is how plausible they are.

Again we will explore knowledge per se in future posts but, for now, please accept knowledge in its common sense form. Within the respective domains of evidence-based reasoning and faith-based reasoning, one can see that there are respective networks of interlinked and interdependent pieces of knowledge - knowledge webs, if you like - and these are used a context to generate and evaluate the plausibility of such speculations, that go beyond what its known in those different webs. However the generation, evaluation process and consequential plausibility judgements, are dependant on these different knowledge webs and so can lead to quite different conclusions. There seems to be a clash in even deciding (im)plausibility. That is those who use evidence-based reasoning (and their version of that knowledge web) will find some ideas more plausible than others, held to be implausible, and it is possible, although not necessarily so, that those coming from faith-based reasoning (and quite different knowledge webs) might reach the opposite judgments of what is and is not plausible. It seems useful encapsulate this clash by calling these evidence-dependant plausibility and faith-dependant plausibility.

Looking at either type of knowledge web, clearly differing individuals who operate within those contexts will have differing skills, abilities, interests, time and experience so that some aspects will be more in focus - they can access more detail, so to speak - than other aspects. Such webs are bigger than any one person - sadly the days of renaissance man are long gone - but the sum total of work done by many others over many periods of time. Nonetheless there are (at least) four related criteria that help anyone use those webs to evaluate speculative claims.

These four criteria come in two groups; the first is consistency and coherence; and the second contrary and contradictory. Here coherence is just a looser form of consistency, applied where there are still gaps in the web and so needing higher-level or more abstract principles that are the same (consistent on that level) that can be derived from those related areas separated by such gaps. It is often in those gaps, or in enhancing focus and detail there, that speculations can occur, not just on the web boundaries. Now contradictory claims are those when only one can be right and the others are wrong, whereas contrary claims also disagree but they could all be wrong, one does not have to be right. (We are using right and wrong in a pragmatic not moral sense here).

For illustration we will examine, very briefly, "god of the gap" and creationist arguments. When faith-based reasoning, applies itself to a gap in the evidence-based knowledge web, it produces a speculative claim, that can be evaluated for plausibility. Usually it is inconsistent with such knowledge surrounding the gap, which has no need of the god hypothesis. It is usually also incoherent with principles used in this area, if not the whole of the web, which also so far have no need for higher-level abstractions such as "god did it" in discovering such knowledge. Now if there are one or more evidence-based speculations that might fill this gap, they can be evaluated for plausibility in their own right. But in contrast to faith-based claims, they are usually at least contrary (at least until the gap is actually filled by a substantiated claim) and in the latter case they become or are contradictory - especially where there is no gap regarded in the evidence-based web in the first place! Finally such speculative claims, whether filling gaps or attempting to replace whole sections of the web, such as with creationism over evolution, are contradictory to various degrees - how much of the web is perturbed or torn apart by such alternatives. The greater the degree of disruption the more implausible the claim.

In these senses creationism is so highly implausible - being locally inconsistent, nearly globally incoherent and not just contrary but massively contradictory to large elements of the web that it would be perverse, if not impossible, to maintain such as view from an evidence-based perspective. This is not to say there cannot be revolutions in the evidence-based web, in the areas of evolution, for sure they can be expected. However they, if they do occur as a revolution, are likely to be the equivalent of Einstein's Theories of Relativity over Newton's theoretical framework behind his Laws of Motion and Gravitational Attraction. Such revolutions do not destroy the web but re-establish it, often in greater detail and also make it more consistent than it was before. That is these are significant steps forward and most definitely not steps back.

There are more explorations that can be made on this theme but this will have to wait till another time. Two final points are that first that such faith-based webs do not generally look at these issues in terms of speculations and plausibility but rather in terms of certainty and mostly in binary terms, so that there are clashes on even how understand these issues, a key distinction being we can understand them but they mostly cannot understand us - or so they have been mis-educated. And so to the final point that looking at the clash of plausibility this way, we are re-framing another version of the reason versus faith fallacy onto more neutral and less biased territory. So when discussing speculative claims, look at this in terms of evidence-dependant versus faith-dependant plausibility. All this begs the question of what is knowledge and what is evidence, to be explored after the holidays.