Who Needs an Ultimate Source of Authority?

Over at Creation Today, Paul Hovind (son of Kent “Dr. Dino” Hovind) and Eric Taylor have a video entitled What Is Your Ultimate Source of Authority?. The blurb says,

Paul and Eric welcome guest Jay Seegert of the Creation Education Center to discuss the importance of world-views, historical science versus observational science, and the importance of the authority of Scripture.

As much as I love each and every one of you, I couldn’t bring myself to watch the video to critique its specific points for you, so what I say below may not have any bearing on their actual positions. If it helps, imagine I’m having a conversation with a fundie sockpuppet that bears only the most fleeting resemblance to any person or event, living or dead.

But presumably the point is that people are unreliable, observations are unreliable, historical records are unreliable, chains of reasoning are unreliable, and so you need some kind of pole star to guide you. And, of course, the only reliable guide is the word of God because we’ve made up our minds that God never lies; and that the Bible is the word of God because we’ve made up our minds that it is. QED.

But what if the Bible isn’t reliable? What if there aren’t any reliable pole stars by which we can unambiguously guide the truth or falseness of a proposition? Would that mean that we can’t know anything? Do we, in short, need an ultimate source of authority?

Actually, murder mysteries are an entire literary genre where stories often take place in a context where there are no 100% reliable witnesses. Any of the suspects might or might not be lying; any given clue may or may not have been planted; anyone might be concealing information or covering for someone or lying for some other reason. And yet, the detective usually manages to figure out whodunit.

The thing is that just because something isn’t 100% reliable doesn’t make it absolutely unreliable. The GPS unit in your car is only reliable to something like 7 feet (and it was worse back when they had Selective Availability turned on), so it may not be able to tell you whether you’re in the northbound or southbound lane, but it can tell you whether you’re in Washington or Baltimore. Weather forecasts are often wrong, but if you consistently bet even money on tomorrow’s forecast being wrong, you’re going to lose money.

You could, of course, ask how we can know that the weather report was wrong. For all we know, meteorologists are always right and it’s only our lying eyes that tell us it’s raining on a day that was supposed to be sunny. Except that when we see rain, we usually have multiple lines of evidence: we can hear the rain, feel it on our skin, hear from friends who also think it’s raining, etc. So you have a cluster of information sources (sight, hearing, touch, friends) that confirm each other, and one outlier (the weather report).

As we grow up and observe the world around us through our senses and other sources of information, we can figure out how reliable those sources are, and under which conditions. For instance, if it’s broad daylight and I don’t see a cat in front of me, it’s a safe bet that there’s no cat in front of me; if it’s dark, then the fact that I don’t see a cat is a far less reliable indicator of the absence of cat (sorry about your tail, kitty!).

In fact, we can look at the scientific method as an ongoing search to figure out which observations are reliable and which ones aren’t, one that has so far come up with hundreds or thousands of Ways of Being Wrong. All the business with lab coats and double-blind studies and such is secondary, in service of the primary goal of avoiding Ways of Being Wrong.

Everything I’ve said above also applies if one of our sources of information is 100% reliable. If, say, the Bible as interpreted by Eric Hovind were absolutely correct in all cases, we should be able to figure it out by comparing it to other sources of information that we’re pretty sure are pretty reliable, like scientific observation. But unfortunately for him, we have far too many cases where multiple independent lines of evidence (such as radiometric dating, dendochronology, and historical records) agree with each other, and disagree with the Bible. That’s not what we’d expect to see if the Bible is 100% reliable and scientific investigation is 95% reliable.

But my broader point is that we don’t need to assume that there are any 100%-reliable sources of information or authority, so Hovind’s and Taylor’s question is premature; first we need to establish that there is an ultimate source of knowledge. It’s also malformed: the word “your” implies (with the caveats noted above) that he uses the Bible, and if I don’t, then I’m wrong. But if the Bible is the reliable source of information that he thinks it is, then he should be able to demonstrate that it is. But the fact that Hovind isn’t taken seriously even by a majority of other Christians tells me that he still has a lot of work to do in that regard.

Craziness Loves Company

Recently Kent Hovind’s International House of Lunacy offered to send out free DVDs to anyone who asked. So naturally, I had to take them up. Yesterday, it was delivered to my… let’s say “imaginary roommate”, with the oh-so-subtle name “Sevil Natas” (thanks to Fez for suggesting that).

I haven’t watched the DVD yet. But it came with bunch of ads for God and related products, including a CSE Ministries catalog. And that’s what I want to talk about. But I need to preface that with a bit of non-snark:

The insidious thing about HIV is that it doesn’t kill you. At least, not directly, by dissolving your cell walls or anything like that. Rather, it weakens your immune system. This makes your body less able to fight off HIV itself, and also leaves you vulnerable to other diseases. So what kills you is not AIDS per se, but something unrelated, that you normally would have been able to fight off easily.

I suspect that something similar goes on with woo: if you’re prone to hold one kind of irrational belief, then you’re probably prone to believing other kinds of irrational beliefs. If you don’t have the mental toolkit to recognize why astrology is bogus, then you might not recognize that dowsing or feng shui are also bogus.

But the thing about religion — certainly Christianity as it is widely practiced in the US and Europe — is that, like HIV, it actively attacks people’s mental defenses against bullshit, by teaching people that believing things without evidence is a virtue, or that religious ideas should be immune from criticism.

And now, on to the woo! Continue reading “Craziness Loves Company”