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This may seem at first unrelated to spiritualism and more properly a subject of philosophy – and it is. But the Covenant requires us to adhere to a strict separation of the secular and the spiritual, so it is useful to understand the central approach of Reason (the sole arbiter of factual truth) to initially evaluate claims.

The easiest way to illustrate this is with the oft-used “box example”. Two friends, let’s call them Murray and Thomas, walk into a cafe to get their morning coffee together. Murray is an imaginative and undoubting chap, while Thomas is more reserved and skeptical. They notice a plain box on the counter of the bistro as they sip their coffees, and wonder aloud at what might be in it. Murray observes that the box might contain an orange. Thomas notes that while Murray might be right, the number of other possibilities of what the box might reasonably contain is so vast as to make it unlikely that Murray’s first guess is accurate – although not impossible.  Murray, doing what he does anytime he’s slightly challenged, doubles down, saying that he knows it must contain an orange.

Thomas is aware that according to the strictures of Reason, Murray is out of line to make such a claim. It’s not that Murray’s claim isn’t possible, it’s that his claim isn’t justified.  And that’s the key point here.

In order to be justified, a secular, fact-based claim must not merely be possibly true, it must be necessarily true. There must be a preponderance of evidence supporting a factual claim, or the claim may not be made.

In order to (gently) disabuse his friend Murray of his unjustified claim, Thomas does not have to go as far as to show that an orange couldn’t be what’s in the box – after all, Thomas has no problem with the possibility of that being true, he has a problem with Murray saying that it is not just possibly true, but actually true. What Thomas needs to do, therefore, is to demonstrate that Murray hasn’t justified his claim.

In other words, Thomas isn’t saying that there’s no chance an orange is in the box – he’s simply saying that at this time with current evidence, Murray cannot say that he knows for a fact that an orange is in it.

Many people get this wrong.  Many people think that in order to show one shouldn’t claim that a certain thing is true you need to prove that it isn’t true. However, that is wrong – in order to show that a claim cannot be made, all you have to do is show that it is unfounded – that it lacks proper justification to be made in the first place.

Ultimately, when anyone considers a factual claim, there are not two responses, but three.  (Actually five, but that goes beyond the scope of this topic – I do list them at the bottom for anyone who wants to know.)

One can say the claim is justified, and true.

One can say the claim is factually wrong, and demonstrate the falsity of the claim.

Or one can say the claim may or may not be correct, but we do not at this time have enough information to say.

Many people forget the third is a proper possible outcome.  People tend to think of a claim as being accepted as true or rejected as false – they don’t often see that the third response of “We can’t say” is sometimes the best response – but it is.

In the case of the box example above, Murray made a claim that there is in fact an orange in the box, despite any evidence to that effect.  Murray’s claim can’t be said to be true just yet, but nor can it be said to be false yet either.  The correct response is simply that Murray’s claim is not justified, and therefore cannot yet be made, whether it turns out to be true or not. After all, a stopped clock is right twice a day, but we would not call that a good way to tell time!

The Skeptic’s Principle respects this truth – sometimes the right course of action in response to a claim is neither to believe it true nor false, but to reject it as unjustified and to simply say “We can’t say.”

The box example above is silly, and unlikely, yet it illustrates clearly the Skeptic’s Principle, something that people get wrong every time they respond to being challenged to justify their claims with “Well, you can’t prove me wrong!”

 

Note: for any who wish to know the five potential ways to evaluate claims of factual truth, they are:

  • internally not well formed: the claim must be rejected because either it is internally inconsistent and in some way contradicts itself, or the claim contains one or more items that are vague, imprecise, undefined, etc.
  • demonstrably true: we have enough reasons to think this factually true
  • demonstrably false: we have enough reasons to think this factually false
  • unknown: though well formed, the claim cannot be reliably said to be be true or false because we don’t yet have enough information
  • unknowable: still well-formed, but of such a nature that no evidence is possible, therefore can never said to be known true or known false