When science doesn't cut it

I wrote recently about degrees of doubt, suggesting that the reality of radical doubt more defended than opposed the preferrability of science as a method for sorting out reality.  As I pointed out in a footnote:

I hope to elaborate, in future, on my views about levels of doubt.  I think the issue is more complicated than the points I’ve laid out here, although I don’t think any of the complications are particularly relevant to this argument.

So, I wanted to start doing that.

The way I see it, there are six rough categories into which one can break up levels of credulity.  Moving from the most doubt to the least:

  1. Radical doubt The belief that nothing at all can be proven if it can't be proven to 100% certainty.  Any doubt is absolute doubt.  This level is useful mostly as a placeholder.
  2. Rational acceptance The belief that what rationally makes sense can be accepted as true.  So, 2+2=4, cogito ergo sum, but not 'water exists'.
  3. Empirical acceptance The belief that our sensory experience bears a relationship to reality, and that if, after significant effort, an idea hasn't been disproven, it can be accepted as true.
  4. Good faith The belief that current experience can be accepted as true by default, unless past experience or obvious logical flaw contradict it.
  5. Suspension of disbelief The belief that current experience can be accepted as true by default, with precedence over past experience or obvious logical flaws.
  6. Radical acceptance The belief that all things are true, real, and cogent.  Any evidence is absolute evidence.  This level is useful mostly as a placeholder.

Level 4 is the one I want to talk about right now.

I think any skeptic is familiar with the refrain, "Science doesn't know everything," as though that wipes out everything science does know.  And it's frustrating, because as a conversational tactic it attempts to force the skeptic, defending his worldview, into a more extreme position of claiming everything she does is scientifically sound.

And that's obviously not true.  It's an easy straw man to knock down, and, to be honest, it's easy to pressure most skeptics off of their solid home ground and into this rhetorical trap.  (That's an issue of culture and our common language for these topics, and I don't want to get into it here.)

The truth is that no one can be fully aware of the science, and many of the things most essential to our daily interactions are still beyond science's grasp.

In my experience, the answer to this that skepticism brings to the table is twofold.  First, accepting that  'I don't know' is a good enough answer to the overwhelming majority of questions.  A good skeptic gets used to saying 'I don't know' a lot.

And second, when the situation demands an answer better than 'I don't know' but scientific answers are out of reach (like, when deciding whether to pursue a relationship, or figuring out whether you can trust your friends) the good, skeptical thing to do is to assume the information you have is good, and to remain open to new information as it arises.

Human life is complicated and tricky, and most of the experiences we have aren't going to be clear-cut enough to be at all useful in an empirical sense.  Trying to draw scientific conclusions from personal experiences is insane, and unscientific. Nobody lives long enough to gather enough data to tease out good information, and nobody's memory is good enough to provide that data in a useful way.

But that doesn't mean that we don't use science when we have it.  An individual may not be able to gather enough experience with cancer treatments to determine which ones work best, but the scientific institution can.  And just because we don't have that wealth of information for questions like what shoes to wear in every circumstance doesn't mean the information about the cancer treatment isn't good.

And, of course, in any case you don't absolutely need to make an immediate decision, "I don't know" is generally good enough to hold you over.