1.8 The Contextual Judgment Principle

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1.8.1 Because it reveals a lot about skeptical philosophy, lets look at these arguments:

premise #1: Airplanes have wings.
premise #2: Birds have wings.
conclusion: Airplanes can fly.

Here we have an argument where all of the premises are true, and the conclusion is plainly true, but the argument is logically invalid. The reason is that the conclusion does not follow strictly from the premises given. We don't know by this argument that birds can fly, or that things with wings can fly. Furthermore, some birds can't fly. This argument would need more facts, some rearrangement, and possibly avoid the appeal to birds all together before it could be considered valid. Sure, we know Airplanes can fly, but if you were trying to convince someone who didn't know this, he or she would be perfectly reasonable in not being convinced by the above argument.

1.8.2 Let's look at a similar argument:

premise #1: The Big Bang theory shows that the universe had a beginning.
premise #2: Something had to be a first cause, which initiated this beginning.
conclusion: The Christian version of a personal, all knowing, all good, all powerful God must exist.

The premises in this argument may very well be true. The conclusion, like the airplane argument, might even be true incidentally. Nevertheless, this conclusion does not follow from the premises provided. That’s because there are a lot of missing pieces. Let’s see if we can fill them in...

premise #1: The Big Bang theory shows that the universe had a beginning.
premise #2: Something had to be a first cause, which initiated this beginning.
premise #3: There are no other possible phenomenon which could have caused the big bang and the universe than a God.
premise #4: Any God must necessarily fit the description of Him given by Christian theology.
conclusion: The Christian version of a personal, all knowing, all good, all powerful God must exist.

Here we see the missing (or perhaps hidden) premises, both of which are plainly false. There seems to be no way to reach this conclusion without 1) creating an argument which is not logically valid, or 2) creating an argument that, while valid and logical, contains false premises, depending on whether or not we include #’s 3 and 4. (Yes, I realize there are many other arguments concerning the existence of god/s. If you are concerned with this you are missing my point).

1.8.3 The main point in the airplane and the god arguments presented above is that, even if the conclusion happens to turn out to be true, there has not been provided good reason for believing it. Therefore, it would not be reasonable for a person to accept these conclusions based on these arguments and, if the person was proven later to have disbelieved something which was true, then they have not been foolish or unwise, but simply unlucky.

1.8.4 Let me give another example of this principle. Suppose Bob is traveling down a dark tunnel. He is desperately searching for a way out, since he knows the tunnel to be connected to the lair of an evil dragon. Then he comes to a split; one to the left, the other to the right. Bob looks closely at the left opening and sees green dragon slime on the walls, as well as big dragon-like footprints and a few scale shavings. Through the right opening he can see a dim sign of possible light far ahead, as well as a windy breeze coming through the tunnel. The path on the right has no footprints, slime, or scales. Looking at all the evidence available to him at the time, Bob makes the best estimate he can and takes the tunnel to the right. Unfortunately, Bob finds that the breeze was the from breath of the dragon, and the light was from the fire which he occasionally blew. Bob has been eaten by the dragon.

1.8.5 This is not the tale of an illogical person, or a stupid person, or an unwise person. Sometimes, even when we take the best evidence available to us and use the best reason possible, the answer turns out to be wrong. This will occasionally happen and it is the unfortunate consequence of not being all knowing and all powerful - of being human. Given what Bob knew at the time, Bob made the best, most reasonable choice available to him. Given what he knew at the time, Bob would have been foolish to have taken the path to the left. He would have been a foolish and very lucky person. We cannot judge decisions after the fact, but only within the context in which those decisions were made.

1.8.6 Does this justify foolishness or strike a blow against reason? Not at all. One must look at these things in perspective. The fact is that, in the long run, decisions made based upon evidence and reason have a higher likelihood of being correct. The history of scientific advancement has shown the effectiveness of this approach to knowledge. Since we do not know the future, "likelihood" is the best that we have to go on.

1.8.7 If it turns out that the Christian God does exist, then it still would not have been supported by the above argument, just as "Airplanes can fly" wasn’t supported by its argument. Therefore people who believe based on such an argument would turn out to be very lucky, but no less unwise in this regard.

1.8.8 One might ask, isn’t it better to be right than to be wise? Sure it is. However, there is no way to tell the difference between an illogical argument with a true conclusion and an illogical argument with a false conclusion. Only once the evidence is sound and the argument is logical can we reasonably tell that the conclusion is probably true. To decide before that point is to lower the likelihood of being correct in the long run. What I call the "Contextual Judgment" Principle therefore states that we cannot judge a person to be unreasonable or unwise if they follow the dictates of reason and the evidence available to them at the time, even if they later turn out to be incorrect - a person can be incorrect without making any mistakes in judgment.

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