How do you know what is true?


How can you believe anything if you cannot verify for yourself whether something is true or not?

Fact is, I have to believe other people when they say or write that Napoleon lived, and had lost his final battle at a place called Waterloo. I have to believe other people when they say or write of a monster who went by the name of Adolf Hitler. I have to believe other people when they say or write that there was a conservative old geezer called Paul Kruger, and other men called George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and Henry VIII. I have to accept other people’s arguments or proofs that the earth is round and not flat, that the earth revolves around the sun, that there is an ever-expanding universe, that humans descended from earlier creatures that looked more like chimpanzees than modern humans, and even that I consist of tiny particles called atoms – which in turn consist of even smaller particles.

So, how do you believe anything if you cannot collect data yourself, scrutinise historical sources, and do your own sophisticated laboratory experiments?

You listen to two or more explanations for something that differ on all the main points. You listen to people who represent different viewpoints, and you look carefully at what they submit as evidence. Then you listen to how they insult each other, how they deconstruct each other’s arguments, and how they construct counterarguments layer by layer.

Then you decide: Which version sounds more reasonable? How thoroughly has evidence been examined and on what grounds were evidence rejected and arguments refuted? Which version has a higher probability of being true?

Finally, when you have decided on A, or B or however many options there are, you have to ask yourself why you think that specific version sounds more reasonable, and has a higher probability of being true. Very important: Is it possible that you have a deep-seated need for that version to be the truth? Also, do you choose one version over another because your membership in some or other group is at risk, especially where membership is something that gives value and meaning to your life?

Someone who accepts a particular explanation because they need it to be the truth is like a judge who convicts a man of theft because another man had stolen something from him a long time ago, and ever since he has been carrying around this desire for revenge. What this person needs is one thing; evidence that the guy is guilty is something completely different.

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Just for fun, here are a few issues about which people argue until they are blue in the face.

1. Is evolution one of the most important discoveries ever made about life on earth, or is it nonsense?

Read and decide for yourself:

15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense

12 Arguments Evolutionists Should Avoid

The Scientific Case Against Evolution

How To Argue For Evolution: 7 Common Creationist Arguments, Debunked

Objections to evolution

2. Was John F. Kennedy assassinated by a single sniper named Lee Harvey Oswald, or was there a larger conspiracy behind the assassination?

Read and decide for yourself:

John F. Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories

What is the Case Against a Conspiracy in the JFK Assassination?

What is the Case For a Conspiracy in the JFK Assassination?

3. Was the 40th President of the United States, Ronald Reagan a bastion of freedom and democracy, or was he a bully who destroyed more than he built?

Read and decide for yourself:

Not Even a Hedgehog: The stupidity of Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan: Impact And Legacy

Five myths about Ronald Reagan’s legacy

The Sad Legacy of Ronald Reagan

4. Was Mother Teresa a hope for the poorest of the poor, or was she a “fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud”?

Read, or watch, and decide for yourself:

20 Facts About Mother Teresa

Mother Teresa of Calcutta

Christopher Hitchens – Mother Teresa: Hell’s Angel

Mother Teresa: Why the Catholic missionary is still no saint to her critics