Street Epistemology – a curate’s egg.

I attended Bill Flavell giving a presentation Wednesday night on “Street Epistemology” at CLHG.

One way or another epistemology is the topic of my blog these last 15 years, and using epistemology to create ontologies for business information models has been my day job for maybe 25 so far, so epistemology (and cladistic taxonomies) I know something about. So-called Street Epistemology I’m previously no expert on, but it’s the branding of a methodology for atheists “interlocuting” with those of faith, after Peter “How to Create an Atheist” Boghossian. More on which later, but I gathered a few thoughts on what I was expecting, based on materials on the web sites of Peter Boghossian and Anthony Magnabosco, before the actual session. So first my own pre-amble:

Epistemology is the study of knowledge about the world.
It covers what, why and how we know, and how we understand the semantics (meaning) of what we (believe we) know about the world. That is not so much what is believed but the basis and the mechanics of believing and knowing.

[Ontology is the study of what exists in the world.
Assuming there exists an actual real world, ontology is really therefore about the model of what we believe to exist, hence the presumed relationship between our model and the actual world, based on what we know about it.

Most ontologies involve a taxonomy of classes (types) of things that exist, and their relationships. The basis for membership of any classes is therefore invariably based on what we can know about them – a kind of 20 questions (is it a bird? is it a plane?) or structured sequence or strategy of questioning (why is that your answer, etc.)  – hence an intimate relationship between ontology and epistemology.]

Street Epistemology (SE) is defined as:

A way of having more productive conversations
with believers to help them
re-examine the foundations of their beliefs.

[That way of conducting the dialogue is just such a sequence, flowchart or strategy of asking the basis of what is known / believed. Hence Epistemology. And, the context is to conduct such a dialogue in everyday terms on everyday neutral territory. Hence Street.]

So far so good. Understanding what we know by asking questions is as old as Socrates, indeed the Socratic method is named after him. Adding logic to create episteme and ontolog is what Aristotle first sought to formalise, and the debates continue today.

However, the phrasing of the definition is decidedly one sided – them and us. We are about to help and educate them apparently? “With all due respect” arrogant, cynical and disingenuous. Better (ie more equitable and honest) as:

A way of having more productive conversations
with believers to help them to help us
re-examine the foundations of their our beliefs

So (most recently a la Baggini): “Faithful” or “Rational” we all have thin ice or stacks of turtles under what we believe, whether we call it truth, knowledge, belief or faith. There is always a why (first cause) or at the very least a next question beyond our declared foundation.

The main quality of what we believe on the scale of knowledge to faith is how dogmatic or contingent we hold it to be true and the basis on which we justify holding it – if asked – hence the SE Q&A). The point is to recognise evidence and revisability based on experience (direct first-hand and/or authoritative, transparent, positively- or negatively-verifiable, second or third-hand experience).

The main enemy of reasonable belief is dogma, either individually or in unchallengable authority. Belief that doesn’t recognise doubt, questioning and challenge. Common dogmas are in:
(a) What counts as evidence of what.
(b) Denying the turtles, claiming a foundation more solid than we really have.
(c) Denying that what we believe, we know on whatever basis we hold  about the world is always going to have a human dimension, however “objectively” we might rationalise it.

Corollaries? There are too many to mention, so let’s switch to the actual talk:

After introducing the idea of the Socratic method, the questioning strategy, with the proviso not to lapse into any judgmental or emotional statements, nor to assert any alternative beliefs or arguments held by the questioner, the talk was mainly examples from the Magnabasco web resources. Both raw recordings of Q&A street interviews with theists, and a post-analysis commentary by Magnabasco – points to note and lessons to learn in conducting better Street Epistemology interviews.

Several comments from the audience questioned the disingenuity of the approach. Sure, there is nothing wrong with the Socratic method, but the unspoken (denied) objective of converting the target interviewee, or at least sowing seeds of doubt, getting them to question their beliefs, to leave holding such a question, is disingenuous.

Secondly all the examples used were too easy. Certain (100%) believers, but young, with little evidence of previous theological or philosophical bases of their beliefs. The SE people even have a name for them (after Socrates) “the unexamined”. All too easy to find a question to which the Interlocutor (interviewee) had never considered the basis of any answer, or to hold back on superior knowledge of ancient rehearsed arguments (Pascal’s wager, or Socrates Euthyphro argument).

So far as it goes, to sow seeds of doubt in “the unexamined” believers, then SE is fine of course. And, for atheist interlocutors, if learning the value of the open questioning strategy is needed, rather than reacting negatively and emotionally with “rationalist” counter-assertions, then a 2500 year-old lesson is always good too. All good if done genuinely.

There remain the two problems however. One, it could never lead anywhere with sophisticated theists or theologians, without switching into more active alternative arguments. ie it’s not that argument is bad, whether the dialogue is one-sided questioning or two-way cut and thrust, but that respect and politeness add value to both (mutually from both sides). Sophisticated theists have plenty of doubt. The trick is to understand the things about which they have least doubts.

And two, what is missing with SE is any respect for the other. The whole basis is “we know; we’re educating you”. The “empathic” approach is all a front. You can just about get away with such arrogance when the target is (a) naive in terms of the content of the argument, and (b) naive in terms of the hidden one-sided agenda. Anywhere else it is plain disrespectful and guaranteed to antagonise.

The right kind of respect is what Daniel Dennett cites as “Rappaport’s Law”. You should never start from a position opposing your interlocutor (in explicit open debate or in secret behind your questioning approach) unless and until you can demonstrate your understanding of their position. Indeed, demonstrate it so well they might reply “Yes, that’s exactly what I mean, I wish I’d thought of it like that.” OK, so sometimes time and life are too short to really get to that position in all real cases, and if naive your interlocutor may not have any sophisticated position anyway, but it is the principle of respect to at least genuinely wish to understand the other’s position. That’s empathy. [Post Note: I collated all my “rules of engagement” for constructive dialogue.]

The disingenuity kills that stone dead.

Sadly, it’s even worse than that. Not only is there no attempt to understand the other, over and above the “we’re educating them” stance, there were several totally dismissive positions cited:

The idea of “believing A and not-A to be true” was dismissed with with a snigger. Actually such a position is usually a big clue that neither side really understands yet what A is, or is holding only partial definitions. And, in other cases where objects are unclear or paradoxical, there may be truth and falsity spread over multiple categories of objects and layers of causation, not to mention timescales from historical, immediate and predictive.

Similarly the idea that not all belief in the truth of A can be 100% definitively backed by evidence was also ridiculed. Believing – knowing A – by feel and presence. This is just another consequence of dealing with poorly understood A. (Which isn’t to say a better defined A is necessarily better understood, simply that more questions are needed).

To cut a long story short, atheist rationalists have as much to learn from others (atheist or theist) using SE as any theists might do from atheists. It is dismissive and pejorative to start from a position that treats the other as deluded and unreasonable, in need of the benefit of your education, mentally ill in need of our counselling. At least Socrates knew he knew a lot less than the average atheist. SE is a curate’s egg. Good in parts, for the unexamined, but fundamentally rotten.

Finally, the supreme irony, is that scientistic atheist rationalists are typically the most vocal “new-atheists” in denying the value of philosophy. Science and logic already have everything anyone need know sewn-up apparently. Good news is that Bill Flavell blogs at “NilDogma” so hope for change 😉


[2017 Post Notes: Buzzfeed piece from 2013, and a recent piece from David Webster. The veneration of Socrates is overdone and is in fact a serious limitation to enlightened critical thinking. Encourages the 2-year-old’s style of never ending …. but why, but how, and another thing, but why, what about, how,  …. not actually constructive. See also Rules of Engagement for any dialogue about complex topics.]

[2018 Post Note: See also 2018 Street Epistemology Update which picks up on this 2018 post from David Harding. Food for dialogue.]


8 thoughts on “Street Epistemology – a curate’s egg.”

  1. Thank you for the criticism psybertron. We don’t want to be disingenuous, what would you think of starting a dialogue like this:

    SE: What do you believe regarding Z?
    IL: I believe X.
    SE: I don’t know X, but if X is true I would love to find out. How can we conclude that X is true?
    IL: (gives method Y)
    SE: To be confident that we’re holding true beliefs, we want a method that’s reliable (more on that). Do you think Y works reliably?

    I don’t go in assuming that their method is unreliable, but I do look for flaws once they give one. Even had good results with theologians and apologists. My attitude is more that I am the inquisitive and skeptical student and they are the teacher, and the sentiments I express about seeking truth are genuine. Yes, they then turn out not to have good ways to know X.

    On the one-sidedness, it’s that way because we discuss the interlocutor’s belief. The balance comes when after the dialogue or in a separate meeting, the interlocutor asks questions about my beliefs, which does happen.

    Do you see any issues with this above approach?

  2. Thank you for your thoughts Ian. I was minded to prepare a lengthy response but, it might be better to clarify some issues first (for you and for me). So I have a counter idea to make the exchange as productive as we can. How would the idea of a Google Hangouts discussion appeal to you?

    Anthony Magnabosco suggested this. The purpose would be to learn what we can from your critique of SE and explore ways to improve it, or our implementation of it.

    Feel free to reply via my Facebook inbox, if you would prefer.


  3. Hi Bill, Hi Graham, would love some dialogue. That summary came across more negative than I intended, but my focus is keeping “our side” honest. There were a couple of points where I wanted to start a dialogue on Wednesday evening, in questions in direct response to things Bill said, but the event didn’t lend itself to conversational dialogue. I didn’t want to “show off” prior knowledge, but still felt guilty not doing so, and made sure I tweeted my blog post directly to Bill. Thanks for taking up my points.

    Facebook I reserve for strictly social, domestic, family, friends, hobby, holiday stuff – avoiding heavy intellectual / political / campaigning stuff. I mainly use blogs, forums & comments, with twitter as the glue to join them up.

    Google Hangouts I could give a try. Do you have a circle in mind? It’s while since I used it.

  4. You can start here for Google Hangouts: – Sending you both an invitation, can figure out a time to do a video chat.

    I’d love to discuss this further, as I’d like to keep SE honest too, and figure out how we can make it better and sort out any problems with how it’s being done or presented.

  5. Hi Graham.
    In response to your specific suggestion, yes, that would be a more honest kind of opening gambit (I’m sure we could find variations), and could lead to the same line of Q&A with a naive unexamined IL.

    It would still of course lead to a more suspicious, political dialogue with a more sophisticated IL – more argumentative, more debate-winning, more dialogue-undermining. My Dennett / Rappaport point is empathy is more than a “no-offence intended / with all due respect” rhetorical opening, after which the gloves can be taken off. Respect and trust needs to be earned. Genuinely. (Part of the disingenuity is the kind of stuff already stated openly on the related web-pages – trying to create an atheist, but no not really. Don’t mention the war. History matters.)

    But clearly improvement is possible. And yes, the one sided-ness need only be the framework for the first dialogue – again if agreed and understood – that role-reversed or neutral follow-up is available.

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