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Evaluation of Claims Made by Others

04/04/12

Permalink 11:10:00 pm, by Brandon Norgaard Email , 1696 words   English (US)
Categories: Building Knowledge

Evaluation of Claims Made by Others

Often times in life, one can only gain knowledge of certain events from claims made by others. Often ideas are written down or otherwise recorded in some way by one person and then these ideas can be understood, to some extent, by others. Inevitably, not all claims that one may come across will be entirely accurate, so it is necessary to figure out for oneself what to believe and what not to believe.

Purported truths fall into several categories, some of which are as follows:

  1. Purported personal experiences or autobiographical details, such as reports of events by someone claiming to be an eyewitness.
  2. Purported details of current events, such as what one often finds in a newspaper or television news report.
  3. Purported historical truth, such as what one might find in a history book or what a historian might claim to be true.
  4. Purported scientific truth, such as what one might find in a science book or what a scientist might claim to be true.
  5. Purported revealed divine or dogmatic truth, such as what one might find in a book of holy scriptures or what a person of faith might claim to be true. This includes anything written in the Bible, the Koran, or any other book considered to be the "Word of God".

Everyone has many beliefs that are not the product of either personal observation or reason, but are instead the product of simply believing certain claims made by others. It is probably impossible for any person to go through their entire life believing only that which is the product of their personal observation and restricting logical conclusions to those that follow solely from personal observation. If such a person did exist, they would have no understanding of history beyond what they remember from their own past. They would have no understanding of other people's lives beyond what they personally see other people do. They would have no understanding of events in the world that occur outside the range of their senses. They would probably have nothing more than a basic commonsense understanding of the physical world that people seem to be able to intuitively grasp. Though they might be able to see and hear events on television, without believing in the claim that these images and sounds are representations of events that are happening far away, this person would probably not be able to understand this basic fact. This person would be confined to a world of their immediate experience and some basic logical conclusions that follow from this.

It seems only someone with severe mental deficiencies would think this way. It should now be clear that it is completely unreasonable to reject all claims made by others. While it is necessary to accept some claims that one comes across, it is often quite difficult to figure out what claims to believe in or not to believe in. There has to be a process through which one can judge whether a given claim is epistemically justified, but what should be the criteria for this? Most educated and open minded people understand that claims found in science books, history books, and news reports are mostly justified and that claims involving superstitions and propaganda are not, but they might not be able to easily explain why they have made this distinction. Also, though there are many people in the world who believe in some sort of holy scriptures, the reason given by such people usually rests on their own faith rather than on evidence. Such people might have a difficult time explaining why the claims made in their scriptures need to be taken on faith while scientific claims can be taken on evidence.

My conclusion is that a claim is epistemically justified if the one evaluating the claim understands that each of the following conditions are met with regard to the content of the claim and also the source of the claim, which can also be called the claimant:

  1. Coherent Claim: The content of the claim is coherent with all of one's existing epistemically justified beliefs, which must ultimately be coherent with personally observed facts about how nature works. What this means is that if a claim directly contradicts something that one believes and is justified, whether this belief came from personal observation or from another claim, then this new claim fails to meet this condition. The only exception to this is if the existing belief also came from a claim rather than a personal observation and the new claim meets every other condition to an equal or greater degree than the old claim. In situations such as this, the new claim is justified and the old one is not.
  2. Naturalizable Claim: The content of the claim can be understood as resulting from natural laws, whether these laws are known to exist or not. Some ideas postulate the existence of the supernatural, while others rely solely on natural events. Natural events are those that causally occur with perfect uniformity based on pre-existing factors. The laws of nature are those that govern how things are caused to change through time. If things always happen with uniformity based on some set of laws, then this is “natural” by definition. This includes the modern updated versions of the law of gravity, Newton’s laws of motion, etc. A claim that can take the form of a natural law can be considered naturalizable. If a claim is made that cannot be conceived as the functioning of natural laws then this is considered either non-natural or supernatural. For example, a claim that says that water was turned into wine is supernatural, assuming that there is no natural law through which water can in certain special circumstances suddenly turn into wine. The only way that it can be reasonable to believe in a supernatural event is if it is personally experienced.
  3. Credible Claimant: The source of the claim has earned credibility in the subject area that the claim relates to because it has a good track record. The credibility of a claim is stronger or weaker based on the track record of the source that provided the claim, all other factors being equal. The credibility of a claim is stronger if it comes from a source that has a history of providing accurate information and of not providing disinformation, which is a claim shown to be false due to the prevalence of counterevidence. Conversely, if a claim comes from a source that does not have a history of providing accurate claims and instead has a history of providing disinformation, then the credibility of this claim is weaker. For example, if the source is a meteorologist who has in the past made accurate weather predictions, then if this person makes a prediction for tomorrow's weather, then this claim is highly credible.
  4. Credentialed Claimant: The source of the claim is trusted by other sources that also have good track records in the subject area that the claim relates to. A good way to identify this is through official credentials or membership in a professional organization that has its own credibility. For example, if a self-proclaimed meteorologist makes a claim about the weather, but this person is not trusted by other meteorologists who have good track records, then the claims made by this untrusted meteorologist fails to meet this condition.
  5. Justified Claimant: The one evaluating the claim has a certain understanding of the process through which the claimant came to believe in the idea behind this claim, and this process is plausible because it only involves the use of senses and mental facilities that people are known to have. Any claim must come from an idea in someone's mind, and this person needs to have evidence for this idea in order for a claim based on it to be epistemically justified. For example, if the source is an archeologist and they are making a claim about the shape of prehistoric bones, then it is implied that the archeologist came to believe the idea behind this claim from digging for bones and carefully observing them with the eyes and the hands and then coming to a reasonable conclusion. If this is the case, then the archeologist has evidence for the idea behind their claim and it is understood that this evidence came through senses that everyone has, namely seeing and feeling. If the one evaluating the archeologists claim realizes this fact then this condition is met for this claim. A contrary example would be if a religious priest makes a claim that involves something divine that he says he came to believe from a special sixth sense he has, but where this sense cannot be independently verified to exist. In this situation, the priest's claim fails to meet this condition.

If one believes in a claim that meets all of these conditions (to the best of their understanding, anyways) and this claim also happens to be true then this person has gained knowledge from this claim. Though it is always conceivable for any claim to be true or false, if a claim meets all of these conditions then it is quite unlikely for this claim to be completely false. Although utter certainty is possible for beliefs that come from personal observation, it is not possible to be utterly certain of any belief that comes only from claims made by others. At the same time, it is inconceivable that every claim that one has ever come across in life could all be false. So it does seem that we should be able to be be utterly certain that we have gained significant knowledge from claims in our lives, and this is probably because many of the claims we have come across in life meet all of the conditions mentioned above.

What are your thoughts on this topic? How well do you think the claims made in the Bible or Koran meet these criteria for claim justification? Do you disagree with these criteria? What criteria conditions do you think a claim must meet in order for it to be worthy of belief? Let your voice be heard in the forum. You can also email the me at brandon@enlightenedworldview.com

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