RE: Critical Thinking, Argument Fallacies, Reasoning Skills [resources]
Government is a religion.
" ~Larken Rose
[Taken from Peter Boghossian's book, "Street Epistomologist"¹, primarily Chapter 5]:
. faith. 1. belief without evidence; 2. pretending to know things you don’t know
The Socratic method
The Socratic method is a powerful, no cost, dialectical intervention that can help people reason away their faith. Effectively used, the Socratic method can create moments of doxastic openness—moments when individuals become aware that their reasoning is in error. In these instances people become less certain, less sure, less confident, and correspondingly more open to alternative hypotheses and explanations. People become aware of their own ignorance. The Socratic method is like putting a tool into the hands of a believer who ultimately uses that tool to dismantle the scaffold of their own (false) belief.
Socrates used his method as a guide to help people show themselves they didn’t know what they thought they knew. He exposed untrue beliefs, developed a sense of disquiet in his interlocutors, and elicited contradictions by asking pointed questions in an unthreatening way. These conversations forced people to substantively evaluate, and in many cases ultimately change, their beliefs. And this was all accomplished merely by asking a question, listening to the answer, then asking another question, listening to that answer, etc.
An explanation of the stages of the Socratic method
The Socratic method has five stages:
I’ll now briefly explain these stages and then show how they inform actual faith interventions.
- (1) wonder;
- (2) hypothesis;
- (3) elenchus (Q&A),
- (4) accepting or revising the hypothesis;
- (5) acting accordingly (Dye, 1996).
- Stage 1: Wonder
The Socratic method begins in wonder. Someone wonders something: “What is justice?” or “Is there intelligent life on other planets?” or “Does karma govern the cycle of cause and effect?” etc. Wondering takes propositional format—words are used to capture one’s thoughts—and are thus expressed as questions. Simply put: from wonder a hypothesis emerges.
- Stage 2: Hypothesis
Hypotheses are speculative responses to questions posed in stage 1. They’re tentative answers to the object of wonder. For example, one possible response to the question, “Is there intelligent life on other planets?” would be, “Yes, there must be. The universe is just too large for there not to be.” Another response could be a simple, “No.”
[In the context of a Socratic intervention, and only in the context of a Socratic intervention, do I use the words “hypothesis” and “belief” interchangeably.]
- Stage 3: Elenchus (Q&A)²
The elenchus, or question and answer, is the heart of the Socratic method. In the elenchus, which is essentially a logical refutation, Socrates uses counterexamples to challenge the hypothesis. The purpose of the counterexample is to call the hypothesis into question and ultimately show that it’s false. Continuing with our previous example:
Person A: “Is there intelligent life on other planets?”
[Note: Stage of wonder]
Person B: “Yes, there must be. I think the universe is just too large for there not to be.”
[Note: Stage of hypothesis]
Socratic Interlocutor: “Well, to paraphrase Carl Sagan, ‘We could be the first; someone had to be the first and it could be us.’”
[Note: Stage of counterexample and beginning of the elenchus, which causes the epiphany of ignorance]
In the elenchus, the Socratic facilitator generates one or more ways that the hypothesis could be false. That is, what conditions could be in place that would make the hypothesis untrue? Definitively stating there’s no life on other planets is not a counterexample because it simply states that the hypothesis is wrong, it doesn’t state how it could be wrong. This may seem like an issue of style, but in fact the interchange is critical to the process, because without a dialogue there can be no intervention. Simply put: both parties enter into an open discussion. Using the example of life on other planets, one condition to make the hypothesis false would be if we were the first intelligent life forms to arise. If it is the case that we’re the first intelligent life forms to emerge, then by definition this means there is currently no intelligent life on other planets.
This is a successful counterexample because it calls the hypothesis into question—that is, it’s one viable explanation for why there could be no other intelligent life forms in the universe.
Another condition that would call the hypothesis into question might be, “Just as it could be that we’re the first intelligent life form to have arisen, so too could it be that we’re the last intelligent life form.” This is a counterexample because it notes a possible condition that could make the hypothesis false. It is possible the universe was, at one point, teeming with intelligent life but perhaps there’s a “Great Filter” that either prevents or makes it exceedingly difficult for intelligent life to sustain itself (Hanson, 1998). The Great Filter possibility, or the possibility we’re the first intelligent life form to arise, calls the hypothesis into question.
A hypothesis is never proven to be true. After a hypothesis survives repeated iterations in the elenchus, this only means that to date it has withstood a process of falsification. For example, through a window by a lake, you’ve seen one million white swans; nevertheless, this doesn’t mean all swans are white. No matter how many swans you’ve seen, this does not make the hypothesis that all swans are white true, it only means the hypothesis hasn’t been shown to be false (yet).
A single counterexample can kill a hypothesis, yet even millions of confirming instances don’t change the status of the hypothesis. (There’s an asymmetry between confirmation and disconfirmation.) For example, let’s look at the hypothesis, “All swans are white.” Yet, one day, standing in your yard is a black swan. In this instance, the hypothesis was shown to be false, independent of your experience of seeing a multitude of white swans.
Regardless of the content of one’s beliefs, that is, whether or not one believes in reincarnation, talking serpents, or that Tom Cruise is God, all but the most severely delusional individuals will recognize some constitutive, fundamental mistakes in reasoning, like contradictions (a thing cannot be both X and not X) and inconsistency (incompatibility with other claims). The elenchus is a simple yet effective way to undermine a hypothesis by eliciting contradictions and inconsistencies in one’s reasoning, and thus engendering aporia. A classic aporia, or puzzlement, being, “Everything I say is a lie.”
- Stage 4: Accept or Revise Hypothesis
In stage 4, the hypothesis is either accepted as provisionally true, or it’s rejected. If it’s accepted as true then this ends the elenchus and immediately begins stage 5.
If it’s rejected then another hypothesis is given and the elenchus begins again.
If the interlocutor cannot overcome the argument made in the elenchus, then she is forced to revise her hypothesis. In our present example, if she cannot rebut the claim that we could be the first intelligent life to have arisen, then she needs to revise the original hypothesis, which was, “Yes, there must be.” She could, for example, offer a new hypothesis, “Almost definitely,” or she could offer no new hypothesis and state that she no longer knows with certainty.
If the arguments that emerge from the elenchus cannot refute the hypothesis, then the hypothesis stands. It’s vital to reiterate that if the hypothesis stands this does not mean one has found eternal truth. This simply means the hypothesis is accepted as provisionally true.
- Stage 5: Act Accordingly
As a consequence of the Socratic method, one would ideally act upon the results of one’s inquiry. Acting could be anything from changing one’s belief to taking a specific action. Stage 5 has less to do with the implementation of the method, and more to do with the consequences of one’s examination.
I note here that most interventions aimed at removing faith are not an initial success. Sometimes, even after years of treatment, the faith virus is not separated from its host. Initial, comprehensive success is rare. I conduct multiple Socratic interventions daily, and as much as I try to help people shed faith, very rarely has someone abandoned their faith on the spot. What is common—and promising—is that people experience glimpses of doxastic openness as a direct consequence of Socratic discourse.
Finally, experiencing failures are important in your practice as a Street Epistemologist. There is perhaps more to learn from unsuccessful interventions than from successful ones—we learn from our failures, not from our successes.
I had the following late-night discussion with a young man (YM) at a local gym. I was on a treadmill when he began walking on the treadmill next to me. A few minutes later he asked me about my MMA (mixed martial arts) T-shirt.
Intervention 1: Doxastic Openness
From there the conversation turned to superstition in the martial arts, to many popular but false beliefs, and ultimately to religion. About ten minutes into our discussion he told me Jesus Christ came into his life.
YM: He [Jesus Christ] touched me.
At that moment my life was forever changed.
This statement, “He touched me,” is the hypothesis. It is the statement I targeted for refutation. Note that at no point in this intervention do I deny the feelings he experienced. To do so would be counterproductive because we’re all infallible in terms of our tastes and feelings. What I target for refutation is the source or cause of these feelings and the resultant faith it engendered.
PB: That’s really interesting.
Can you tell me about that?
I asked this question for two reasons. Primarily, I needed to make sure I understood the exact nature of the claim. I was virtually certain I did understand, but needed to be positive. It’s a good idea to ask someone to repeat or restate their claim. In Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, this is habit 5, “Seek First to Understand Then to Be Understood” (Covey, 2004). Secondarily, I framed this in terms of a question because I wanted to make him more receptive to answering. I admitted my ignorance and asked him to help me understand. That is, I did not say, “Please tell me about that,” as this phrasing can be interpreted as a command with the word “please” stuck in front of it.
Framing questions this way makes people feel like they have the option to not answer. I’ve found subjects are usually more receptive to continuing treatment when questions are framed as just that—questions—and when you show your interest in a conversation by asking follow-up questions.
YM told me of his experiences, what he’d gone through in his life, and what he felt.
PB: That’s really interesting. But I have a question.
How do you know the thing you felt
was caused by Jesus?
Four points to note: (1) Use of the passive voice doesn’t make Jesus the actor in the sentence as it would with the active voice, “How do you know Jesus caused the thing you felt?” If you construct your statement with the passive voice, the subject may be more likely to be open to alternative causes. (Active voice: Mary tuned a violin. Passive voice: A violin was tuned by Mary.)
(2) Because this is a question, YM can give individual responses that can then be broken down and targeted for refutation. This is important because there may be specific moments in the intervention when the subject is too doxastically entrenched in a particular hypothesis. When this occurs, an alternative line of questioning may help advance the conversation. In other words, one may also find additional fertile ground for creating doxastic openness when the list of conversational topics expands.
(3) I’ve found that questions, as opposed to statements, tend to be less threatening as people feel they have the freedom to answer as they like. For example, the declarative statement, “That wasn’t Jesus. That feeling was produced by the complex interplay of your own neurobiology and culture.
Experiencing Jesus never happens to indigenous peoples who are cut off from the world. That alone should tell you you’re delusional,” does not act to increase the subject’s doxastic openness (Kim, 1979, p. 203), but rather furthers doxastic entrenchment by creating threatening or adversarial relationships.
(4) This question resets the Socratic conversation, beginning again in wonder. YM would then offer a hypothesis that could be targeted.
YM basically went on to say he “just knew” it was Jesus and he felt it was true in his heart.
PB: That’s interesting. But a lot of people feel some
religious belief in their hearts, Buddhists, Muslims,
Mormons, people who think the Emperor of Japan is
divine. But they can’t all be correct. Right?
I specifically avoided the word “you.” For example, I did not say, “So how do you know your belief is true?” This can be threatening, as it may be perceived as creating an uncomfortable environment by placing the focus on the subject personally as opposed to the hypothesis. In discussions of faith in particular, it’s crucial the Socratic clinician differentiate between people and propositions (Boghossian, 2002a). Faith is a deeply personal experience for people, and the more faith as an epistemology can be separated from faith as an identity, the easier the transition from stage 3 (elenchus) to stage 5 (action). Cultivating togetherness and not stressing differences continues to move the conversation forward.
I was attempting to open YM up to alternative ways of conceptualizing his experience —providing a more objective way for him to view the cause of his feelings.
The conversation went back and forth a few times, with YM reiterating that he just felt it to be true.
PB: So what do you think accounts for the fact that
different people have religious experiences that
they’re convinced are true?
Again, this is posed in terms of a question, resetting the Socratic method back to stage 1 (wonder). At this point rapport has been established and YM does not feel threatened (Clark, 1992; Horvath & Luborsky, 1993; Szimhart, 2009, p. 260). The use of the word “you” is again avoided, so as to allow the subject the possibility of escaping from his own situated experience. To create a framework where the faith being discussed is essentially treated as someone else’s faith benefits the discourse, because getting too personal about something so intimate can be very threatening.
YM: I don’t know.
Bingo! A glimmer of doxastic openness. YM partially removes himself from the equation. The faith virus has received its first vaccination.
PB: Yeah, I don’t know either.
I immediately modeled the behavior of openness and uncertainty that I’m attempting to engender in the subject. “I don’t know” is a deceptively powerful statement. It also leads the subject to think, correctly, that you don’t have all of the answers and that not having all the answers is okay.
And it is okay, not just for me to not have all the answers, but for anyone and everyone including the subject.
A pregnant pause is a very useful, nonthreatening technique, typically used in sales, to get the result you want. Often the uncomfortable silence will be filled by an answer; regardless, it allows the discourse to move forward, but if the dialectical space isn’t filled you can continue at your leisure.
PB: So people who deeply and genuinely feel these
experiences—these religious experiences—do you
think they understand that they might not be caused by
what they think they’re caused by?
I had this conversation years ago. Today, I would no longer ask such a leading question. Instead, I’d more carefully construct a framework and ask other questions about which he’d form additional hypotheses that I’d then continue to target for refutation. One effect of this constant targeting and undermining is to create a chowder of epistemic uncertainty—with individual propositions floating untethered from their cognitive foundation. By targeting virtually every proposition that populates his worldview, I’d be able to undermine his confidence in what he holds as true. Once this is accomplished, the specific belief caused by the faith virus—in this case Jesus Christ revealing himself—can then be dialectically isolated, made hollow, and extirpated.
I jumped ahead because of his age, but also because I saw an opportunity to drive a wedge into his belief system—separating the faith virus from his other cognitions—and frankly because I was less experienced.
YM: Some probably do. Some don’t.
This statement is a hypothesis. It seems rather obvious and there was no point in targeting it for refutation. Also, by not targeting reasonable hypotheses at this juncture, the subject may feel he has just enough to grasp onto so he’s not drowning in uncertainty.
PB: Yeah, that’s probably right.
But you’ve thought about the feelings you had
not being caused by Jesus.
Again, note the passive voice.
I was somewhat surprised by this answer. I thought ego alone might have led him to answer in the affirmative.
PB: So is it possible that the feelings you had were
not experienced by Jesus?
I repeated the question.
YM: I don’t know.
Jackpot! He went from certainty to uncertainty—from absolute confidence to doubt; from precontemplation to contemplation; from thinking he experienced Jesus to being unsure. This particular intervention had ended.
However, I was acutely aware of the danger he would face when he returned to his faith community. I was concerned he’d be pulled back into his faith delusions by loved ones or by clergy. For the next few weeks I made late night visits to the gym to look for him. I wanted to administer a follow-up treatment and see how he was doing. Unfortunately, I never saw him again. I’ve always regretted not giving him my phone number.
The following intervention took place with a security guard (SG) at a university where I taught night classes. SG and I had made small talk a few times, but we never had a substantive conversation. He was a softspoken and kind young man. I liked him.
Intervention 4: Immediate Success
One day I overheard SG telling someone about training for his upcoming missionary work. He was a Mormon and evidently he was learning how to convert others.
PB: So what’s your best line? I mean, what’s the line
you’re gonna use that will convince them? You can
try it on me if you want. Maybe you’ll convince me.
SG: Okay. So look around you. How did this get
here? This had to have a cause, right? All of this.
The question, “How did this get here?” is a statement of wonder (stage 1). The answer he gave to his own question was, “It had to have a cause.” This is his hypothesis. In this example he supplied both wonder and a hypothesis. I moved straight to the elenchus and gave him a counterexample.
PB: Well, what if it was always here?
SG: What do you mean?
PB: Well, you assume that nothing is the default.
What if the default was something. In other words,
what if there was always something stretching back
SG: What do you mean?
I wasn’t sure if his question was a genuine glimpse of doxastic openness, or if he couldn’t comprehend a universe that stretched back into infinity. Accordingly, at this point I rephrased the question to convey openness and to reinforce the safe environment for our discussion.
PB: What do you mean what do I mean? You assume
the universe had to have a beginning. What if there
was no beginning?
SG: I never thought of that.
I was extremely surprised by this comment. He was about to try to convert others and yet he had not even thought of the most basic objection to his worldview? I was also shocked this point of doxastic openness came so early in the conversation. At this juncture I wanted to make sure he didn’t feel stupid, and I also wanted to make sure I drove home stage 5 (act accordingly). My goal was not just to help him to question his faith, but also ultimately to detach him from the structure supporting and sustaining his faulty epistemology—the Mormon Church.
PB: Well, I think about this stuff a lot, so don’t feel
bad. Plus this is what I do for a living. So if it’s
possible that the universe always existed, what
would that mean to you?
I reset the conversation to wonder. I also wanted him to draw his own conclusion, and perhaps even impose the method upon himself. In other words, SG would use the same method of questioning upon himself that I’d been using on him, so I waited for him to see the opportunity to talk himself out of his beliefs. The obvious conclusion was that if the universe always existed then God didn’t create it. It’s a short intellectual step from God not creating the universe to God not existing—but SG didn’t see that yet. I continued.
SG: I’m not sure.
PB: Well, let’s think through it together.
PB: So the main argument for God was, “Look
around you. How did this get here?” But we know
there’s another possible explanation for what there
is. So if the universe always existed,
what would that mean?
Here I use the word “we” to confer upon the subject the feeling that he is not alone, that we are equals, and that we as humans are all facing the same ultimate questions.
SG: I’m not sure.
I would have normally taken more time with this process, but I was already running late for class. Still, I had to seize the opportunity. In my rush, I made a mistake by leading the subject too much. It would have been better to give him more cognitive space to come to his own conclusions and thus increase the likelihood of a successful transition to stage 5 (act accordingly). This is because he would have been more likely to accept the conclusion if he arrived at it of his own accord, as discussed earlier.
PB: Well, if the universe always existed then it
wasn’t created. If it wasn’t caused what would that mean?
SG: That there’s no God?
I tried to hide my joy, show my approval, and acknowledge our success.
PB: Yup. That’s what it would mean.
He looked horrified and scared. Even though late for class, I proceeded to provide him with the resources he needed to escape from the Mormon Church. Specifically, I furnished him with contacts and resources he could use for support. I made sure to let him know he wasn’t alone. I also specifically explained why it’s crucial to not succumb to the “just pray about it” line that I was certain he’d be subject to once he started voicing doubts. (Asking people to “just pray about it” pushes them into a form of confirmation bias where the very act of prayer means they’ve already bought back into the system they just escaped.)
This was a successful intervention. It was successful because the conversation was brief and because he came to the conclusion on his own with minimal prodding.
When I left him that night he told me he was “freaked out.” I don’t know if SG ever completed stage 5 and left the church. I never saw him after that.
Socratic interventions are easy to administer, no-cost treatments that can engender doxastic openness and even separate faith from its host. The main way this happens is by helping expose contradictions and inconsistencies in subjects’ reasoning processes.
When administering Socratic treatments, keep the following in mind:
At the conclusion of some interventions, subjects will be confused or even scared. In chapter 6, I’ll discuss how to deal with this and what goes in faith’s place.
- Be aware of the stages of the method. Don’t transition from one stage to another stage until you’ve exhausted everything you need to do in that particular stage. Don’t rush.
- When appropriate, incorporate strategies noted in chapter 4: be attentive to context, don’t develop adversarial relationships or negative tones, “roll with it,” divorce belief from morality, focus on epistemology and not metaphysics, target faith not religion, and model the behavior you want the subject to emulate. Develop a safe space for discussion, almost a camaraderie.
1. ok, confession time: that's not the actual title, rather it's a coinage in the book that's actually titled, A Manual For Making Atheists
2. the elenchus (the Q&A) is grounded in what Marc presently often refers to as the trivium; it's the "who, what, where, when, and how" aspects of questioning
Is it voluntary? (because if it isn't, what inherently is it?)
And can it be voluntary, if there's indoctrination, intimidation, coercion, threats & initiation of violence?
[not to be confused with asking: can it be said to be "voluntary" even when such is present.?]