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.

Teasing Information Out of Noise

Humanist Symposium

Bennett Haselton has an interesting
article
at Slashdot about how to develop a “scientific” test for child
pornography.

Given that Slashdot is all about technology and gadgets and stuff, you
might expect the article to describe a new image-recognition algorithm
or something, and wonder how it could possibly work on such a
subjective problem. But he doesn’t; in his proposal, the
“measurement”, if you will, consists of people looking at photos that
may or may not be illegal pornography.

In other words, the problem is that we don’t have a good
scientific instrument that we can point at a photo and have a red
light go on if it’s illegal pornography. All we have is people, who
have to make a judgment call as to whether a given photo is legal or
not.

One problem with this is that we’re asking people to make a subjective
judgment call. And that means they’re likely to get the wrong answer.

So Haselton’s approach is to use people as his instrument, then say
okay, we know that this instrument is unreliable; let’s find out under
which circumstances this instrument fails, and try to counter that.

For instance (he claims), you can take a given photo, mix it in with a
bunch of others that are illegal, and people will condemn the whole
set. But you can then mix the same photo with a bunch of innocent
photos, and people will declare the whole set legal. This tells us
that our instrument is a) unreliable (a photo can’t be legal and
illegal at the same time), and b) affected by context. He then proposes ways to work around this problem.

What I found interesting about this article is that Haselton tries to
apply the scientific method to a highly-subjective area. A lot of
people think science is about labs and test tubes and computer models
and such. But as I’ve argued
elsewhere,
the hardware is secondary, and the core of the scientific method
is really a mindset, and asking the questions “what is the world
like?” and “how do I know this isn’t garbage?”

The other remarkable thing about this article is that it demonstrates
how to tease information out of noise: you have witnesses making
subjective judgment calls on an emotionally-charged subject, biased
prosecutors, biased defenders, and fuzzy legal guidelines. You might
be tempted to throw up your hands and declare that under these
conditions it’s impossible for justice to be served reliably. And yet,
he takes the optimistic approach that no, we can serve
justice, or at least improve our odds of getting the right answer.

It’s a bit like John Gordon’s
summary of coding theory
(aka the biography of Alice and Bob):

Now most people in Alice’s position would give up. Not Alice. She has courage which can only be described as awesome.

Against all odds, over a noisy telephone line, tapped by the tax authorities and the secret police, Alice will happily attempt, with someone she doesn’t trust, whom she cannot hear clearly, and who is probably someone else, to fiddle her tax returns and to organise a coup d’etat, while at the same time minimising the cost of the phone call.

A coding theorist is someone who doesn’t think Alice is crazy.

I often hear that such-and-such problem can’t be approached
scientifically (morality, the existence of God, beauty, whether
something is pornographic or obscene, etc.). A lot of times, though,
it’s because people either haven’t bothered to see how far a
scientific or rational approach can take them, or else they’re unaware
of how much can be done with such an approach, or how
simple it can be. (The reason I don’t make a big deal of whether a
restaurant serves Coke or Pepsi is that my brother and I once tried a taste
test, and I found that I couldn’t really tell them apart.)

It’s also awe-inspiring to think about how far we’ve come, as a
species: not only have we improved our instruments — from naked
eyes to Galileo’s telescope to Hubble — but through statistical
methods, experimental design, and others, we’ve increased the amount
of information we can glean from existing instruments.

Not bad for a bunch of naked apes with oversized brains and a knack
for cooperation.