What is “Street Epistemology”? (Part 2)

We saw in Part 1 of this series that Street Epistemologists (SE’s) see themselves as interventionists. This guides their interactions and the way they talk to people. They aren’t trying to win debates. Rather, their goal is to sow the seed of doubt in a congenial way. Part 2 will focus on the method Boghossian proposes successfully moves religious people from doxastic closure to doxastic openness.

Word to the wise: This post is longer than usual (roughly 10 minute read). It might be worth bookmarking and working through when you’ve got time and no distractions. There’s loads of material. With that out of the way, let’s get to it.

Interventionism

It’s important to reiterate that SE’s see themselves as interventionists. They approach interaction with religious people a very certain way.

“[Debating] is the wrong strategy and is highly unlikely to help people overcome their delusions (it may even force them into deeper doxastic closure and make them better debaters and thus more able to rationalize bad ideas). By [debating], you also run the risk of modeling the wrong behavior— the behavior of being doxastically closed— of having a closed belief system and an inability to revise your beliefs. This is not the behavior a Street Epistemologist should model in order to elicit behavioral change. You should be modeling doxastic openness— a willingness to revise your beliefs . . . Wannabe Street Epistemologists don’t have the patience or just want to enjoy the “sport” of debate.”

The SE models congeniality. They are patient, respectful, and friendly. They listen closely and ask targeted questions. The standard sort of frustrated, antagonistic, and condescending attitude that typifies atheistic engagement online doesn’t move anyone from being doxastically closed to open. Ridiculing the things believers say and believe will inevitably backfire.

This is critical. According to Boghossian, one’s relationship with the “subject” will make or break the treatment. The tone of the conversation has to be just right if the method is going to work. Remember: safe-space.

The Socratic Method

Once the dialectical safe-space is in place (that’s literally what it’s called in the book), the SE is called upon to employ the Socratic Method.

“Socrates used his method as a guide to help people show themselves they didn’t know what they thought they knew. He exposed untrue beliefs, developed a sense of disquiet in his interlocutors, and elicited contradictions by asking pointed questions in an unthreatening way. These conversations forced people to substantively evaluate, and in many cases ultimately change, their beliefs. And this was all accomplished merely by asking a question, listening to the answer, then asking another question, listening to that answer, etc.”

There are 5 stages of the Socratic Method (SM). I’ll lay out each below and explain how they work. Before I do that, let me reiterate that Street Epistemology is about instilling doubt, moving someone from doxastic closure to doxastic openness. This explains Boghossian’s articulation of Elenchus in Stage 3. The goal isn’t to provide actual defeaters, but rather to instill doubt.

Stage 1: Wonder

The first stage is wonder. We think about a given question or topic. For instance, we might wonder, “What is the nature of reality?” or “Is the Universe all that there is?” or “Is Street Epistemology a good method for creating atheists?” From wonder, we formulate responses and hypotheses which can then be examined.

Stage 2: Hypothesis

Put simply, hypotheses are speculative responses to questions raised in Stage 1. For instance, in response to the third question above, someone might hypothesize that, “Yes, SE is a wonderful method for creating atheists.”

Stage 3: Elenchus (Question & Answer)

Stage 3 is about planting seeds of doubt. The interlocutor facilitates ways in which the hypothesis could be false. This is important: She doesn’t offer ways in which the hypothesis is actually false, but ways in which it could be false. For instance, one might respond to the hypothesis that SE is a good method for creating atheists by saying, “I might agree it’s a good method for helping people think critically, but why think critical thinking points people toward atheism? Couldn’t it point people toward Agnosticism or even Theism?”

This works because, according to Boghossian, it’s a possible scenario or condition that would make the original hypothesis false. If it were the case that critical thinking pointed people toward Agosticism or Theism, then it would be false that SE is a good method for creating atheists. Again, the Socratic interlocutor isn’t saying this scenario is actually the case, but that, for all we know, it could be the case.

I have to note at this point that Boghossian’s articulation of SM is different from any version I’ve seen. This is because Boghossian uses Elenchus to move someone from absolute certainty to doxastic openness. This stands in contrast to how Gregory Vlastos, a scholar of ancient philosophy, articulated Socrates’ method. He says it takes the following form:

1. Socrates’ interlocutor asserts a thesis, for example “Courage is endurance of the soul”, which Socrates considers false and targets for refutation.

2. Socrates secures his interlocutor’s agreement to further premises, for example “Courage is a fine thing” and “Ignorant endurance is not a fine thing”.

3. Socrates then argues, and the interlocutor agrees, that these further premises imply the contrary of the original thesis; in this case, it leads to: “courage is not endurance of the soul”.

4. Socrates then claims that he has shown that his interlocutor’s thesis is false and that its negation is true.

Elenchus, according to Vlastos, is about getting one’s interlocutor to agree to premises that ultimately contradict the original claim. It’s not merely about offering possible scenarios or conditions under which the claim is false, but rather about defeating the original claim. In Part 3, I’ll examine and explain why this is important.

Stage 4: Accept or Revise Hypothesis

Here’s where things get messy. Not every Socratic interlocutor will successfully execute Elenchus. Sometimes the method in Stage 3 fails and the hypothesis stands. In this case, the hypothesis may be tentatively accepted. Doesn’t mean the hypothesis is true, just that it sustained a round of Q&A.

On the other hand, if the argument made in Stage 3 cannot be overcome, then, says Boghossian, the original hypothesis must be either be revised or rejected. So for instance, if the claim that critical thinking could point people toward Theism can’t be overcome, then the original hypothesis, that SE is a good method for creating atheists, must be changed or thrown out. One might update the hypothesis to say, “SE is a good method for creating atheists at least in some cases.” However, if no new hypothesis can be offered, then the interlocutor must admit she no longer knows with absolute certainty that her hypothesis is true. The seed of doubt has successfully been planted.

I should note that I don’t think this follows at all. Offering possible scenarios where a hypothesis is false isn’t the same as offering plausible or probable scenarios where a hypothesis is false. The latter is what necessitates revision, not the former. This is why Vlastos’ articulation of the Socratic Method is much better. More on this in Part 3.

Stage 5: Act Accordingly

As a consequence of this method, some sort of action should be taken. This has little to do with the method itself, but rather what one does after examination.

The basic idea here–Boghossian’s method–is relatively simple. First, SE’s offer up a question. Second, the interlocutor offers a hypothesis. Third, the SE gives a possible way the hypothesis could be false. Fourth, if the possible scenario can’t be overcome, then the interlocutor must either revise the hypothesis or recognize their hypothesis could be false. Fifth, doubt. BAM!

Now, obviously atheism doesn’t always follow from doubt, but Boghossian’s hope, I take it, is that doubt is the first step toward atheism. Or something like that.

Tips and Tricks

Now that we’ve got a basic idea of how Boghossian’s method is supposed to work, we’ll take a look at some dialectical tips and tricks meant to help Street Epistemologists with their interventions.

Become an Interventionist

Have I mentioned how important it is that SE’s treat interactions like interventions?

“You will, in a very real sense, be administering a dialectical treatment to your conversational partners in a similar way that drug addicts receive treatment for drug abuse. Drug addicts come into the detox center in state X, undergo treatment, and then leave the facility in state Y, hopefully improved.”

SE’s are supposed to model the behavior they want their interlocutors to emulate. They should “trust reason, stop pretending to know things they don’t know, be open to saying, “I don’t know,” be comfortable with not knowing, and allow for the possibility of belief revision.” The following piece of advice is meant to dispel the arousal of frustration:

“There is one piece of advice I can provide to help you overcome this social or personal feeling of inadequacy–the kind of feelings some beginning Street Epistemologists may feel in their initial interventions with the faithful. You need to become comfortable with not knowing and not pretending to know, even though others may ridicule you or attempt to make you feel inadequate for not pretending to know something they themselves are only pretending to know.”

Hopefully you can see by now how essential the persona of an interventionist is to the efficacy of Street Epistemology.

Ask for Confidence Levels

Boghossian suggests that early on in the intervention, ask the subject to assign themselves a level of confidence. He suggests using the Dawkins Scale, but other SE’s I’ve seen just use a standard 0-100% (0% being zero confidence and 100% being absolutely certain). Boghossian says to use this as a test, test the efficacy of your interventions. If what you’re doing isn’t working, if it’s not succeeding in lowering anyone’s confidence, try a different strategy.

Importantly, the SE succeeds if they manage to lower someone’s confidence over the course of a discussion. Doesn’t matter by how much. If there is a lowering of confidence, any amount at all, the SE has succeeded. Obviously this isn’t a success in terms of creating atheists, but that’s not actually what they’re doing.

Avoid Facts

Street Epistemologists are so meta they avoid facts altogether. No, this isn’t a joke. The suggestion Boghossian gives is to flee facts. Devout SE’s focus only on epistemology, not on the evidence. Why is that? I figured it was best to let Boghossian defend himself.

“When I teach beginning Street Epistemologists how to help rid the faithful of their affliction and anchor their beliefs in reality, one of the most difficult strategies to get across is: do not bring particular pieces of evidence (facts, data points) into the discussion when attempting to disabuse people of specific faith propositions. Many rational, thoughtful people think that somehow, magically, the faithful don’t realize they are not basing their beliefs on reliable evidence— that if they were only shown solid evidence then voilà, they’d be cured! This is false. Remember: the core of the intervention is not changing beliefs, but changing the way people form beliefs— hence the term “epistemologist.” Bringing facts into the discussion is the wrong way to conceptualize the problem: the problem is with epistemologies people use, not with conclusions people hold.”

The idea is clear enough. The problem isn’t the evidence, it’s the way people claim to know things. The assumption here is that a Boghossian-style epistemology is going to inevitably lead people to atheism. This is supposedly true regardless of the evidence. The takeaway is that SE’s avoid arguments and evidence like the plague (or at least they try to).

In other words, best of luck if your goal is to have a rational, productive, evidence-based conversation with a Street Epistemologist.

2 Shortcuts

We’ve come to the last piece of advice. Here Boghossian suggests that if you are pressed on time (for instance, if you’re at the supermarket and are checking out), there’s a way you can communicate the basic method of SE with two simple questions.

“First, I’ll ask, “How could your belief [in X] be wrong?” I don’t make a statement about a subject’s beliefs being incorrect; instead, I ask the subject what conditions would have to be in place for her belief to be false.”

This question is essentially a variation of Stage 3 of the Socratic Method. The twist is that instead of offering the “coulda woulda” conditions yourself, you’re asking your interlocutor to provide them instead. The goal is to quickly force doxastic openness, force them into being open to being wrong.

“Second, I’ll ask, “How would you differentiate your belief from a delusion? How do you know you’re not delusional?”

This question is initially asked with the expectation that they will answer defensively:

“In my experience, few people directly answer the question about how they know they’re not delusional . . . Instead they’ll reply, rarely with anger, more often with sincerity, “Well how do you know that your beliefs aren’t delusions? How do you know you’re not wrong?” To which I respond, “I could very well be wrong about any of my beliefs. I could also misconstrue reality. The difference between misconstruing reality and being delusional is the willingness to revise a belief. If I’m genuinely willing to revise my belief I’m much less likely to think it’s a delusion. Are you willing to revise your belief that [insert belief here]”?”

The ultimate goal of this second question is to get them to admit that they are open to revising their belief (which would be a successful move from doxastic closure to openness). Delusions are beliefs that are strongly maintained in the face of counter-evidence. If one maintains their beliefs to a lesser degree, then they are less likely to be delusional. That’s the message Boghossian ultimately has in mind here.

Concluding Remarks

Whether you are an aspiring Street Epistemologist or Christian Apologist, I pray at the very least you’ve found this post informative. In the next part of this series, I’ll share some of my own thoughts on the method outlined here. You may be surprised what you read.

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4 comments

  1. “Street Epistemologists are so meta they avoid facts altogether. No, this isn’t a joke. The suggestion Boghossian gives is to flee facts. Devout SE’s focus only on epistemology, not on the evidence. Why is that? I figured it was best to let Boghossian defend himself.”

    Boghossian doesn’t need to defend himself. He’s simply aware that pelleting a person with facts – as correct and scientific as gravity can get many faithful people to argue against facts. It’s a weird psychological response. In the midst of facts, people get defensive and grab hold to something they believe is true.

    The ultimate goal is to have a rational, educated, evidence based conversation. You have twisted Peter’s methods to mean we don’t have intelligent conversations with others. Nothing could be further from the truth but truth may not be what your after in this article.

    1. I didn’t say SE’s can’t have intelligent conversations. I said that devout SE’s avoid talking evidence; they instead focus on epistemology. And that’s precisely what Boghossian says and suggests in the book. I’ve gone to great lengths making sure I am not twisting his words, which is why I’ve included large chunks of his own pen. My guess is that the language I used upset you because it wasn’t glowing in adoration for all things SE. The fact is that Boghossian says to avoid discussing facts. There’s an entire section dedicated to hitting that home. He even has a section on what to do if you “must” discuss facts because he knew people (people like yourself) aren’t devout.

    2. You completely miss the reason we don’t talk about evidence. Confirmation Bias, Backfire Effect and other tricks our minds play on us come into full force when the conversation turns to evidence based arguments. The assumption that Christians win arguments on fact is laughable. Catholics will argue til they are blue in the face that a silly wafer of bread actually becomes the real flesh of Jesus in their mouths. Mormons will argue that Joseph Smith actually had gold plates even though they were never seen and obviously not real and Evangelical Christians will defend their equally sill propositions to the death — regardless of their silliness. The point is, all of these beliefs are based on faith and faith is a poor epistemology.

      1. I am not your average Apologist, Heath. I take great care to represent my interlocutors charitably and accurately. Unfortunately, what you’ve done here is give a knee-jerk reaction to something that you actually affirm in your comment. In my summary I say, “The problem isn’t the evidence, it’s the way people claim to know things.” That’s basically identical to your last sentence (religious beliefs are based on faith, faith is a poor epistemology). Claiming that I’ve missed the point entails that you’ve missed the point as well.

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