In Software Patches for the Brain, I quoted Richard Carrier:
…if you don’t employ a sound method routinely and vigorously, then your entire belief system will be unsteady and imperfect.
Carrier offers two common-sense characteristics of a good method:
- predictive success and
- convergent accumulation of consistent results.
These attributes are easy to understand and have obvious merit, yet many of us muddle through life oblivious to them. When our method makes predictions that prove false (or is unable to make an predictions at all), we make excuses. When contradictions arise, we call them truths-in-tension.
A method that predicts things (especially surprising things) that are later confirmed is more credible than one that cannot make predictions or makes false ones.
The most spectacular example of predictive success may be the discovery of microwave background radiation from the Big Bang. The Big Bang Theory had predicted such a thing, but nobody had observed it. In 1964, Arno Penzias and Robert Woodrow Wilson discovered it by accident as they tried to find the cause of mysterious static on their radio antenna. Score 1,000 points for the theory. Add 1,000 bonus points for the most understated title of a Nobel-prize-winning paper in history: A Measure of Excess Antenna Temperature at 4080 Megacycles per Second.
Not only was that a victory for the Big Bang Theory; it demonstrated the power of the scientific and logical-mathematical methods.
Convergent Accumulation of Consistent Results
If we find our belief-system spawning more and more contradictions for which we must fashion more and more ad hoc explanations or ugly contortions, that’s bad. On the other hand, if the arrival of additional data confirms our ideas, then we are probably on the right track. That’s especially true if the additional confirmation comes from different directions.
The best example I can find is the evidence for the Theory of Evolution. At one time, I was a creationist. After I read the book, Scientists Confront Creationism, and saw that independent disciplines ranging from paleontology to molecular biology all converged on the same evolutionary conclusion, and creationism could only accommodate these diverse data by twisting all honest thought, I had no choice but to change my view.
Not only did I change my view about creationism, but I was duty-bound to question the validity of the method by which I had come to believe that idea. That was the method of faith, and trust in authority.
These examples show why Dr. Carrier puts the methods of logic, mathematics and science at the top of his list, and ranks methods like faith and expert testimony lower.
More on that next time!