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What If I'm Wrong About Everything?

November 7, 2015

Epistemology—also known as the theory of knowledge—deals with the nature and scope of propositional knowledge. It take a critical look at knowledge and how it can be acquired. It’s a very deep and interesting subject that I only plan on skimming the surface of here. I’m mainly interested in understanding what my beliefs are, how I acquired them and testing whether or not they are true.

When I ask “what if I’m wrong?” I don’t mean it in the sense of pascal’s wager where he asks what the consequences of beliefs are. Instead, what I mean is “what if I’m wrong, how would I know?”. What evidence would it take to change my mind? These are probing questions, but I think very important ones. Anyone who can ask these of themselves removes certainty and makes their own beliefs open to scrutiny.

It was the famous skeptic, Socrates, who said his only knowledge was that he knew nothing with certainty. It’s an unsettling concept, especially when applied to our more core beliefs. Being open to the idea that we may be wrong is humbling, but it’s also vital to acquiring justified true beliefs. We may not be wrong about some things, but we definitely aren’t right about everything. So how do we distinguish between justified beliefs and opinions? We must become skeptics of ourselves.

When trying to justify a belief, it’s very easy to fall subject to confirmation bias. Typically, this results in only searching for information or evidence that supports our currently held beliefs. But it’s vital in the search for knowledge to seek out opposing views. Breaking out of our bubble of reinforcing currently held views by hearing out those who don’t agree. Digging into their justifications, evaluating their sources and comparing them to ones own.

Another method of eliminating bias from the evaluation of belief is by using the scientific method for acquiring knowledge. That is to take a proposition and instead of searching for supporting evidence, one should try and disprove it. If sufficient evidence cannot be provided, it is reasonable to suspend judgement until evidence is provided. If a proposition is shown to be false or is unfalsifiable, it should be rejected.

The acceptance of an unfalsifiable claim is the abandonment of reason. When a belief doesn’t have refutability, it cannot be tested of its validity and is therefore a useless proposition and cannot be known. If a belief requires the suspension of our critical faculties, it is completely reasonable to reject it outright, regardless of how tempting the proposition may be if true. It’s more important to believe things that are true rather than things that one wishes were true.

This concept can be further explored using Bertrand Russell’s teapot analogy which demonstrates that the burden of proof lies on the person making a claim. Russell wrote that whether or not the claim of a teapot that orbits the sun somewhere in our solar system is true or false, it is illogical for anyone to accept on the grounds that it cannot be disproven to exist. This is important to understand both when making or analyzing a claim.

When these principles are applied to ones beliefs, it organically begins to weed out unjustified propositions while at the same time leads to a better understanding of why certain beliefs are held. It’s an exercise in critical thinking that will also teach us how to process and evaluate new ideas or claims. In essence, it’s learning how to think instead of what to think—a lesson that is too often learned late in life, if at all.