The Third Dogma of Reason-Ability

In order to take a course of action, we need a good reason. This dogma invokes the skill of discernment: What is the reason, and is it reasonable? What evidence exists? How valuable is this evidence? What are possible explanations for these results? What are the implications of these results? Can we go with this? 

The Third Dogma: Discernment

There is no such thing as proof. There is only evidence.

This is possibly going to be quite a tough one, because humans tend to want science to make things easy for us. Come on science, show us the truth, show us the right way to do things, so that we don’t have to apply the skill of discernment. There’s a good reason for that: It’s hard.

There are probably few harder skills to master than the ability to use discernment. To look at all the evidence in support of a claim, to weigh the different pieces of evidence against each other in terms of quality, reliability, value and relevance, and to make a decision as to whether or not we are going to adopt a new belief, or follow a course of action. My favourite scientist, the 20th Century polymath Richard Feynman has this to say on the value of science:

“Science is a way to teach how something gets to be known; what is not known; to what extent things ARE known (for nothing is known absolutely); how to handle doubt and uncertainty; what the rules of evidence are; how to think about things so that judgments can be made; how to distinguish truth from fraud and from show.”

The key line for me is the phrase in parentheses: for nothing is known absolutely. Science can never say what is right, it can only say: “So far it seems to work like this. Maybe things will change in the future, but we’ve done this a few times and we generally get the same results.”

The Value of Science

Science is never ‘true’, but seldom unhelpful.

Science’s greatest value (and the acid test of whether or not something is within the domain of science or not) is whether or not the theory gives rise to predictions.

The test of science is its ability to predict. If a scientific theory does not make any predictions, then it can still be a theory, but it does not exist within the realm of science. So, it’s important that we not only have a reason for doing the thing we decide to do, whatever it is, but it has to be reasonable, given the context. These are some of the questions you might want to ask yourself when you next encounter a claim as scientifically-proven:

What evidence is there to support it?

Where is the data set?

How many times have these results been reproduced?

Do we know whether studies that showed no effect have been done but not reported?

Who paid for the research?

Who stands to benefit from the research findings?

Is there a sale-able product to ameliorate this ‘finding’?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a massive fan of science. I just want people to think about these things before they accept any new research-finding as gospel truth. For it can never be ‘true, it can only ever be ‘so far it seems to work like this’. If someone decides, on the balance of probabilities, to adopt a certain belief, a mindset, a way of life, after having given it a reasonable amount of thought, then that’s fantastic. That’s exactly what we want:

People making conscious decisions, having done a reasonable amount of background reading, research, thinking and even, experimentation themselves. I believe we can move to a world of discernment, where people adopt beliefs after a reasonable amount of research, contemplation and personal experimentation. I’m excited about that world.

Dogma Number 3: What is the reason, and is it reasonable?

Here's an overview of a model to follow when choosing your own focus points