Saturday, January 26, 2008

Judgments and Judgment

I often read Scott Adams blog. A lot of his ideas are just crazy, but every once in a while he makes an observation I totally agree with. In a recent post he mentions that kids decide what they want to be when they grow up based on the few careers they are aware of, without any knowledge of the thousands of occupations that are out there. It's so true, but it's so rarely mentioned by anyone. But I do take issue with Adams saying that a person must believe another person's judgment is inferior if they do not believe in the same religion. I would have posted a comment on his blog, but it already had over 200 comments by the time I read the post, so what's the point?

When Adams' uses the word "judgment", he isn't talking about a particular instance of a person making a judgment, rather a person's general ability to discern truth and falsehood. It might be called intelligence, reason or rationality as well. His concept of judgment is missing something important: the fact that rational judgments are made on the basis of the information a person has available to them. It may be rational for me to think that Christianity is true after reading the likes of C.S. Lewis and N.T. Wright. I can't avoid the conclusion that Christian morality works in practice, after seeing it practiced consistently by much of my friends and family. But I wouldn't expect a person whose only knowledge of Christianity comes from watching snippets of televangelists' preaching, and who has never seen anyone practice what Jesus or Paul taught, to believe Christianity any more than any other ideology they know practically nothing about.

Many of our judgments of fact are based on probability, inductive reasoning, memory, and testimony; none of which are infallible. So, in principle, any of these judgments may be nullified on the basis of new information. Only perfect deductive reasoning from absolutely sure premises avoids this possibility. By way of example, let's consider a person named Jay who is at work and ask ourselves whether a rational person should think Jay ate cereal for breakfast this morning. If all the rational person knows about Jay is that Jay is a live person who eats food, the rational person won't believe anything regarding Jay's current status a person who has eaten cereal for breakfast today. If the rational person knows that Jay is an American, and 49% of Americans eat cereal for breakfast on any given day, they will believe that Jay, as likely as not, ate cereal for breakfast. If the rational person learns from a reliable source that Jay eats cereal every morning for breakfast, they will believe Jay almost certainly ate cereal for breakfast this morning. But if they then find out that Jay is extremely allergic to wheat and the only cereal that Jay encountered this morning was bran flakes, they will believe he did not eat cereal for breakfast this morning, as evidenced by the fact that Jay is at work and not in the ER. Each step of the way, the rational opinion is superseded because of new information.

Good judgments are a function of both "how good [a person is] at determining truth from nonsense" and the information the person has. If it were otherwise, I would have to conclude that Isaac Newton was a crappy scientist for not believing in the Theory of General Relativity. If a politician, or anyone, disagrees with me on religious matters, I can't be obliged to think they are stupid, unless I know their reasoning is flawed. That's my judgment on the matter.

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