1.6 Evidence Defined
1.6.1 When talking so much about "evidence" it is important to define just what we mean by the word. Skepticism itself is not as simple as "seeing is believing." Very often, our sight can fool us. "Seeing is believing" is what has led people to believe in ghosts, mermaids, the Loch Ness monster, UFO’s, and all sorts of other misunderstandings of the senses. Furthermore, there are many things which we have good reason to believe in, which can not be seen with the naked eye, such as radio waves, black holes, atoms, etc.
1.6.2 In the case of human limitations, we have the two extremes:
1) some things exist which we cannot see, and
2) some things we see, or think we see, do not actually exist.
The first limitation encourages us to keep an opened mind and to continually search for more data. The second limitation means we must be cautious and willing to question ourselves, no matter how sure. Each of these realizations must be accounted for in our epistemology.
1.6.3 In the first case of human limitation (some things exist which we cannot see) we should acknowledge the following:
a) Our vision represents a tiny portion of the spectrum of electromagnetism known as "light." Such a tool is inadequate to sense ultraviolet, infrared, X-rays, Gamma rays, and so on.
b) Our eyes are also only equipped to handle a certain level of detail, beyond which we cannot see. For this reason things which are either very far away or very small become but specks to us, if not invisible all together.
c) Because our eyes are tools which sense light, and the smallest particle of light is the photon, anything on the photon’s scale cannot possibly form an image - just as we could not throw basketballs in a pitch black room and determine the details on a diamond ring by the way the ball bounced back into us.
d) There may be phenomenon in the universe which we do not have the anatomical hardware to sense. An analogy would be this: some fish that exist at very deep levels in the ocean do not have eyes because there is no light in their habitat and eyes are not needed. It would be difficult for a smart creature without eyes to ever notice light or discover it was there.
e) There may be realities or phenomenon which cannot, even in principle, ever be detected by any sense or any machine, regardless of how technologically advanced we become, yet these things may exist.
1.6.4 Given the possibility of all sort of things "out there" that we cannot detect, it may be tempting to entertain all sorts of notions. We can easily construct a multitude of scenarios and "realities" in our imaginations and then set up clauses which make the assertions impossible to ever prove or disprove. "Fortune telling only works sometimes and only for those who believe", UFO’s abduct people but have technologies to hide themselves and erase memories", "Atlantis was a continent that sunk into the sea but it was so long ago that all evidence has been erased by the sands of time", "God exists but he’s invisible" - these are all examples.
1.6.5 Ghosts nearly always appear at night in front of groggy people who are isolated or somewhat alone - they rarely appear in places like the middle of downtown New York on a bright day in front of hundreds of people. In ancient times mermaids and sea monsters were commonly spotted when the seas were not charted or sailed as commonly but now the surface of the earth has been covered and is commonly traveled by oil tankers and airplanes. Mermaids and sea monsters must have gone extinct! Superstition always lies at the edge of our perceptions and reach. If it didn't, then such phenomena would either be flatly proven or disproven and lose their romantic appeal.
1.6.6 So should we then dismiss everything outside of the range of our own eyes? How should we determine between the fact and the fantasy when we talk about things we can’t see. Aren’t angels and atoms on the same playing field? Not exactly. There are some guidelines we can go by to get around these limitations of our senses...
a) First, we have to recognize that our eyes, our brain, and the nerve connections between are physical objects, which operate according to the same set of physical laws everything else around us operates by.
b) This means that, although organic in nature, the eye is simply a camera - and not even the best when compared to the artificial cameras created by human beings. Therefore, any camera which operates by similar principles should be considered as valid as the human eye for gathering data.
c) If we can build other sorts of cameras or detectors that pick up light by the same principle, but simply a different frequency of light (like ultraviolet for example) then this should also be an acceptable source of data.
d) Since light is made up of particles (photons), then using other particles in the same way should allow us to "see" as well. In general, instruments we construct, if we understand the principles they are based on, should be reliable sources of data. In fact, we can even run tests on these instruments to cross verify their accuracy.
1.6.7 These guidelines allow us to extend our senses but under the same or related principles which our eyes work. However, this does not mean that anyone can just doctor up some "instrument" and we all must accept what it says, such as a divining rod for example. In order for the instrument’s data to be reliable, every relevant step in the process of how it gathers and handles the observations and data must be understood and proven itself. In addition, it’s accuracy must be cross consistent and verified with other methods.
1.6.8 In the second case of human limitation (some things we see, or think we see, do not actually exist), we must acknowledge the following:
a) There are several instances where a reflection, distortions in light waves, temperature, humidity, imperfect focus, optical illusion, etc. can cause an image hitting the eye or the camera to objectively appear identical to something it is not.
b) Often, even when something appears ordinary and the image itself is not tricky, our mindset at the time, the duration we see it, our expectations, our prior beliefs, and other psychological factors play a role in how our brain interprets the image captured by our eyes.
c) Later, upon remembering an event, the brain has the nasty habit of filling in gaps in memory with fantasy or embellishing memories with extra "details" that were not present in actuality. Often these distortions of memories seem so real that we would bet good money, perhaps even our lives, that they actually occurred exactly as we remembered them.
d) In many cases, an injury, a drug, or other similar situations can lead to severe distortions in our senses and memories.
e) On top of all these uncertainties, the occurrences of intentional deception between humans are high enough to often suspect unusual and extraordinary experiences to be the result of trickery and investigate the possibility accordingly.
1.6.9 Each one of these five points represents a link in the chain leading from true reality to our perception of it. If just one of these links is weak, our perceptions are suspect. If a link is flat out broken, then our perceptions are likely wrong - especially in the face of fantastic claims such as psychic powers, ghost/angel sightings, and UFO’s.
1.6.10 How do we deal with these limitations? Do we throw up our hands in despair and decide that there cannot be any true knowledge of objective facts because everything is subject to mistake? Or do we decide that we should just forget all this evidence stuff and go with our gut feeling or what the dominant culture says without question?
1.6.11 Both of these would be mistakes. The nihilistic attitude of thinking we cannot know anything leads at least to ineffectiveness at achieving any goal or creating new inventions or paths in life. At worst, nihilism leads to despair and chaos in our lives and society. Forgetting about evidence leads to arbitrary beliefs, mindless following, dogmatic attitudes, gullibility, superstition, etc. In addition, many people have all sorts of gut feelings which are obviously lunatic or disastrous - this shows the efficacy of our "guts."
1.6.12 We can proceed under these limitations, but we must go by a strict set of guidelines to help us avoid pitfalls. If we follow these guidelines, we lower our chances of making mistakes in our judgment tremendously and increase the accuracy of our beliefs. These guidelines include...
a) Evidence can only be thought of as true evidence if it can be witnessed by anyone on a reliable and repeatable basis.
b) Evidence is most reliable if it can be corroborated by other evidence or through other means.
c) We cannot play favorites with ourselves when we happen to be the one who had the experience. No matter how real it seemed to us, we should acknowledge that it could have been a mistake or delusion and require the same standards of proof for ourselves as we would if it were someone else who had the experience. Those standards should also rise in proportion to how extraordinary or unusual the experience was.
These strict standards may seem close minded and keep us from recognizing things we are currently missing. After all, what if something really happens but there’s no way to see it again or corroborate it? Nevertheless, these standards are the only thing which will get us around our perceptive limitations and keep us from fooling ourselves. Such an approach is what separates folklore from true knowledge. If we do not live by these standards, we slip into a world of superstition, where whoever can shout the loudest or whoever has the most money and influence gets to determine the so-called "truth." The fact that we may occasionally miss some things is a price worth paying to avoid this, just as some criminals occasionally getting away is a price worth paying for the principle of "Innocent unless proven guilty."
Continue to 1.7 Basic Logic