This essay is part two of On What We Know. You can find part one here.
As I stated in part one of this essay, there are three methods of knowing–facts, inference, and faith. It seems we struggle with which of the three methods are most appropriate for the situations we encounter.
When we face a large-scale social challenge, it would seem most logical for us to default to a mode of fact-finding and scientific understanding. Surprisingly often, however, this does not happen.
A War of Inference
One example is the United States war with Iraq beginning in 2003. We entered this war on supposition. The United States intelligence community and elected leadership claimed they gathered facts.
Officials paraded pictures past Congressional committees, news cameras, and the eyes of the public. Pictures are, of course, facts. They are artifacts showing specific details. What details they show, however, requires some sort of interpretation. That is where things get messy.
In truth, the public, the news media, most elected leaders, and likely many members of the intelligence community were missing key factual information. They could not prove the “facts” delivered about Iraq and its “weapons of mass destruction”.
Therefore, we all entered that war on inference. We inferred the true nature of the situation without having all of the facts. Had we as a country (i.e. the entire population) demanded factual evidence, we may have never entered the war.
In other words, facts and patience could have saved thousands of lives and millions of dollars. The unfortunate truth is the United States has a history of suspending logic and the search for factual evidence when it comes to war.
Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam; the leadership of the country entered each of these wars after the populace allowed them to do so. The populace did not demand scientifically validated factual evidence that actually did exist.
Instead, the populace placed faith in leaders, and allowed those leaders to charge headlong into major turning points in human history.
Gotta Have Faith?
You certainly took note of my use of the word “faith” just now. This is an opportunity to further clarify the meaning of this word as it relates to this discussion. In its use above, the word is actually referring to trust in other humans rather than faith in an unmeasurable idea or belief.
For example, consider driving over a bridge. Each time you do so, you are relying on faith that the bridge will hold your weight and remain standing. In what are you actually placing your faith, though?
Is it in some unmeasurable force holding that bridge up? No. You are actually placing your trust in the people who designed and built the bridge, the materials they used to build it, and the laws of physics. You are trusting in scientifically verifiable processes.
We all know it is unrealistic to expect that every human being will know every detail of factual evidence, such as how to build a bridge. Two things are absolutely certain, however.
First, it is possible to know all factual evidence within our physical universe. Second, we have the ability to learn factual knowledge and teach it to other people.
When we gain knowledge through factual evidence in our world, we understand our world. This is the only true way to know how our world actually works. When we know things, we can accomplish things. When large groups of us know things together, we can accomplish even greater feats.
Knowing What to Know
We fail in the process of knowing and accomplishing when we attempt to solve social challenges by using inappropriate methods of knowing. We fail to differentiate between what we can know and what we cannot know.
When people don’t understand the world around them, they tend to rely more on inference than factual understanding.
Rather than collectively searching for facts that can better explain something, people “follow their gut” as they search for a more expedient method toward knowing.
For example, let’s say someone doesn’t trust a government official. As a result, this person may not look for their own factual evidence to support or refute what this government official is saying. Instead, he or she might focus on that official’s intentions and decide not to “believe” that person.
Even more damaging to the search for true knowledge is our tendency to claim to know things we cannot know, and then fight over these details.
The obvious example here is our frequent fighting over religion. This story is unfortunately familiar. One religious group claims to have access to a certain body of knowledge that explains the workings of the world. Therefore, they conclude, the social rules by which we live should be dictated by this body of knowledge.
This group then attempts to force their social rules onto other people, many of whom live by different religious rules and guidelines. The groups push back and forth against one another for days, years, and centuries resulting in misunderstanding, arguing, and war.
Faith, ultimately, does not serve to solve problems in our physical world. It can serve as a guide for our personal actions, but not as a method for solving problems.
Gotta have Facts
The bottom line is we do not know if relying on faith will fill the bellies of the poor, or stop bullets from flying, or stop bombs from dropping, or heal the atmosphere of the Earth.
We do know that feeding the poor, not pulling the trigger, not going to war, and not spewing pollutants into the air will stop all of these things. We know this because these are physical entities within our physical dimension, and they are under our control.
Faith is not a worthless practice. Faith in the unknowable has been an eternal facet of the human condition. However, there is a difference between relying on faith as a guide for our behavior and relying on faith as a method for getting things done.
We don’t need faith as a method when we already have the tools and the power to get things done.
Will and a Prayer
We don’t need to sit back and pray that God will do something we already have the ability to do ourselves. When we have the ability, prayer as a method is an empty endeavor.
Prayer can instead motivate us, gather us around a cause, and center us to logically think through the steps toward a solution.
Some religious practitioners may argue strenuously with the ideas I am presenting here. There are many people who advance the idea God has a certain will God is attempting to fulfill on Earth. Many people interpret prayer as a method for learning that will.
Once again, however, I argue that interpreting God’s will is an entirely faith-based exercise. We have absolutely no factual evidence that would help us to measure whether or not God’s will has actually been achieved.
We have religious texts, of course, but these texts are not annals of scientifically-derived factual evidence. They cannot definitively explain the physical world or prescribe solutions to problems created by the hands of humans. Ultimately, we do not need them to do so.
We can measure what is possible and what we have achieved within our human capability.
Suspending rational thought and discovery of what exists in our physical world in order to let events occur based on faith alone makes no logical sense when it comes to social challenges we can solve.
Is it God’s will to pollute the planet when we can see that such pollution is detrimental to human and ecological health?
Is it God’s will that people kill one another in small-scale and large-scale conflict when other ways of interacting exist and we have proven these methods work?
Is it God’s will to have rampant and destructive financial inequality that exists solely because of the rules we have made up?
Is it God’s will that children sitting in school die at the hands of a person wielding guns when we have ample evidence we can keep such things from happening?
Is it God’s will to keep people from receiving healthcare when solutions to this problem already exist all over the world?
When it comes to solving social challenges, we are easily sidetracked by using the inappropriate method of knowing something. Doing this actually halts human progress and blocks solutions.
Social challenges exist within our known, physical Universe. We have constructed them using the rules, behaviors, and methods of our making. Therefore, we can deconstruct them and solve them.
We can center all discussion about such challenges on logic and reason, and use a scientific method to discover the steps toward solutions.
Then, inference and faith can serve in their rightful places as guides rather than methods.