How to Know

I didn’t really believe it when my Phil 101 prof said there are two ways of knowing: evidence and faith. I still don’t believe it. Knowing requires objective knowledge. If something is true, it has to be available for anyone and everyone to prove to themselves why it is true. If actual evidence shows it’s false, it’s not true. If there is no actual evidence, assertions of truth do not make it so. Thus, science shows truth; religion and superstition do not, because they rely completely on the fact that “someone said so”, and cannot be demonstrated with fact.

If something is true,
it has to be provable,
with actual evidence.

The problem is that at least half the world knows things, including stuff about politics, because they believe them, contrary evidence be damned. Here in the US, most of these people are Republicans.

There is a fundamental difference between what science shows and what religion and superstition show. The difference is that science shows evidence that exists completely outside of human knowledge or belief. It is there for us to discover, and when we do, we cannot simply disbelieve what we find. We may have to adjust our understanding to accommodate the new facts, but whether we “believe” them is simply of no importance. The truth is still there. In religion, what we believe is all there is and there are no new discoveries that could disprove our beliefs.

The greatest conflict in politics today is between those who act entirely on what they believe, and those who act on the actual evidence. The true believer will never change because his mind is firmly made up by what he already believes, but the scientific person is open to change when actual evidence demands it.

Those of us who base our lives on evidence, on what science has shown, on proofs that can be replicated by anyone who wants to take the trouble to do it, are dismayed by people who are simply unwilling to consider any possibility that contradicts their religious faith, recorded many centuries ago when we had only a very limited understanding of the universe and our place in it. They seem like eternal children who believe fairy tales.

“To argue with a man who has
renounced the use of reason is like
administering medicine to the dead.”
Thomas Paine

They believe the bible tells us everything we need to know. But the bible says nothing about GPS. The distance to the sun was not part of the holy word, nor was the exact elliptical shape of the planetary orbits. Not to mention that the church burned people at the stake who didn’t think the Earth was the center of the universe, or who realized that humans are just another mammal and don’t actually look like God. Science is what allows us to send unmanned vehicles through the vastness of space to rendezvous in a planetary orbit many months later. Science is how we know about our distant ancestry from a million years ago. Science is how we grow better food, and make life-saving medicine. Faith says nothing about these things.

Some of these believers were elected to Congress, where they try to impose beliefs that simply do not exist in the real world on the rest of us. I guess that’s what Bush the Younger meant by “faith based” politics—the politics of fantasy, beliefs that cannot be proven. Unfortunately, policy based on fantasy guarantees disaster because things will not behave in impossible ways just because of their beliefs.

On a more mundane level, take the series of Koch-financed ads that demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt that Obamacare is a disaster that will kill us all. Except, of course, in every single case they trotted out, the person who was supposed to suffer under the ACA actually paid less and was completely covered. “That can’t be true”, said one, because the facts contradicted her Republican faith. So what should she base her life on, her Koch-fed belief that “that can’t be true”, or the actual fact that it is true? Unfortunately, a lot of people will accept the lies of rich Republicans about their health care and won’t even find out for themselves. Some will die because of it.

Koch-financed TV ads claim to show
that the ACA is a disaster.
But in every case they trotted out,
the insured was better off with Obamacare.
Fact vs. faith.

Maybe the most disconcerting are certain wingnuts of the right who discount all of science, that is, everything humanity has learned in the past four or five hundred years. They call solid scientific evidence “so-called” science, or “unproven”, or “opinion”, or even “a world-wide conspiracy”. They try to make laws that disallow the teaching of evolution, for example. Unfortunately for them, evolution does not depend on laws. Disbelieving what we know of the universe because they believe the Earth is at it’s center, and is 4,000 years old, is not markedly different from, say, believing that cookies are made by fairies in the northern woods on the full moon.

These same people use their cell phones, GPS, and often fly in huge airliners that are controlled by computers. Do they believe that these things somehow exist without science? The alarming thing is that they have power over our lives, yet their world is only tentatively connected with reality.

Joe Baron, a Republican from Texas, is a fount of stupidity and an all too common example of denial. An outspoken climate change denier and a senior Republican science person, he is the single person most responsible for the inaction of Congress on the climate issue for decades. Since the US is the world’s worst polluter, Baron is personally responsible for more pollution than anyone else in the world. Among other things, he claims that CO2 cannot be responsible for global warming because it’s not poisonous. He claims that wind generators slow down the wind, and therefore contribute to global warming (if there were such a thing, one assumes). His stupidity breaches other fields as well. The Economist, hardly a liberal medium, featured him in its “Profiles in Stupidity” column. What does it say about a party that would place such a fool in a position of responsibility where he can cause serious damage to every person on the planet?

So, Republicans claim superiority for their view of science, their understanding of economics, their superior humanitarianism, and much else. But they believe science must yield to faith, their economics pretty much boils down to unshakeable faith that the Free Market cures all ills, their social conscience tells them that people are poor because they are all inherently lazy and black.

They have managed to convince millions of people to act against their own interests by telling them outright fabrications and appealing to their ignorance about what constitutes truth. The direction they travel is backwards through time, to an age of plutocracy, in which they, the rich, own practically everything, and the rest go through life ignorant and poor.

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