Evaluation of Claims is Essential to Our Lives
It is quite important for everyone to understand some basic principles of the evaluation of truth claims, since it is unavoidable that we often have to rely on claims made by other people as a part of our daily lives. Our most reliable knowledge comes from that which we can personally verify with our own observation and reason, but this is not possible in most circumstances, including some of the most important and consequential areas of life. In order to survive, we often have to trust the statements that others make, and so we need to employ some mental principles and processes and in order to be smart about this.
As Daniel Schmachtenberger said in his lecture The War on Sensemaking: “we’re making more and more consequential choices with worse and worse information to inform those choices”. We all know that there are people who want to deceive us. There are people who don’t understand reality and propagate falsehoods without intending to propagate lies. And even if each of these types of distortions that come from other people are avoided, each one of us has the potential to misinterpret and misunderstand information that is honestly and accurately propagated to us. Our own failings could lead us to inadvertently propagate falsehoods to others. Also, sometimes accurate information is propagated that is nonetheless misleading and misrepresentative of reality because important contextual information was withheld and not propagated. These are all causes of disinformation that distort and pollute the information ecology. In order to prevent this, we need to be vigilant. In a sense, we all need to be historians and journalists in our lives. And when blatant falsehoods are relentlessly propagated and repeated, we should try to set the record straight by appealing to these principles. This would then not just be a game of “he said, she said, they said, etc.”
One can be told ideas from a variety of sources and often they are purported to be factual. Sources can include one’s peers, authority figures, written texts, recorded video, recorded audio, etc. As Schmachtenberger said: “…there is a whole ecosystem of information. We have information coming in from marketing, from government sources, campaigning, from what our neighbors and friends tell us, from social media and we use information to make sense of the world and to make choices that are aligned with whatever our goals are and our values. What we hope is that the information around us is mostly true and representative of reality so that we can use that to make choices that would be effective.”
The phenomenon of gaining knowledge from a claim is reducible to one’s sensing of a claim, probably either through sight or sound, along with the reasoning (which includes the capacity to understand language and symbols) that is necessary to understand the meaning of the claim. In many circumstances, the causal chain from the object to one’s sensory data is relatively straightforward, such as when one is looking at, hearing, or touching an object. It is impossible for one to directly perceive an object, but these kinds of causal chains are as close to actual directness as any can be. Often times, one can only gain knowledge of certain phenomena from claims made by others. In these situations, the causal chain from the object to one’s sensory data goes through one or more other minds (or machines in some cases) before it gets to one’s own mind. Ideas are spoken, written down, or otherwise recorded in some way by one person, and then these ideas can be understood, to some extent, by others, which makes an ever more complex causal chain from the object to the belief.
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. But we do need to be vigilant against potential falsehoods that are being peddled to us, since we have all been duped at some point in our lives. At the same time, it is simply inconceivable that every claim that one has ever come across in life could all be false. Some people will say that we should question everything that anyone might try to say to us and to not accept anything at face value, but if we are rational then we do not question everything equally. We have some well-known facts that we don’t need to question and some things we know pretty well, and these are the basis for further evaluation. There are some people and some media that we largely trust and empathize with and others of which we are suspicious and that we are unlikely to trust. But how do we know who to trust? How do we know what type of information to accept or to reject? 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?
There is no simple answer for how we can evaluate claims made by others, but we know that this is essential to life, and that it is a central aspect of overall sensemaking. There are guidelines that we can keep in mind when we evaluate the trustworithiness of the day’s news reports and of contentious scientific theories and of rumors that our friends. I have come up with some criteria that I think should be used when evaluating any type of claim, and I am including this analysis in my forthcoming book Seeking a More Enlightened Worldview. I will probably give a summary of these criteria in a future blog post. Until then, I’d like to hear from our readers. What criteria do you think are necessary to believe in a claim? Please use the comments below or send me an email firstname.lastname@example.org