TFTRH #33 – Anthony Magnabosco: Street Epistemology and Conspiracy Theories


Anthony Magnabosco is the most well-known practitioner of the craft of "Street Epistemology", which he defines as: "a dialog where you use questions to explore somebody's claim to see how they concluded that it's true." While commonly associated with atheism (the term comes from the book "A Manual for Creating Atheists" by Peter Boghossian) Street Epistemology can be used to explore any kind of belief. There's actually quite a bit of crossover with how to talk to conspiracy theorists.

Anthony and I discuss our mutual experiences with talking to people, how our approaches are similar, and how they differ. It's a fascinating conversation, and while we go for the full hour, we were actually cut short by a minor emergency, and I hope to continue in the future.

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Great. Now that I know the ghost's know that I know they are thirsty the first few days after death, i'm gonna have to leave out water. and food. why would they just be thirsty and not hungry.

It sounds like I am being sarcastic, but i'm not. I don't actually believe that is true, but i'm gonna have to do now anyway. I just became a walking example of the boomerang effect, I think.
Epistemology, Skepticism and Belief

Going through the threads, the word “epistemology” jumped out. Back in the varsity days I majored in analytical philosophy, specializing in epistemology and the philosophy of science. Hence the unintended dissertation that follows in response to the OP. I won’t blame anyone without the patience to soldier through my profuse verbiage. Stop right here!

Firstly, on a more personal note, since my early teens I've been passionate about critical thought systematically employed in the service of truth. For nearly 20 years I've also been fortunate enough to be paid for this passion. Yet I am put off by tribes, camps and clubs, whether amongst the skeptics or the believers. These tribes are off-putting in different ways. The epistemological assumptions unconsciously espoused by both tribes are problematic, albeit they tend to be more blatant within the believing camp. I could be characterized as a skeptic as well as an apophatic theist, as counter-intuitive and internally contradictory it may seem to the epistemologically illiterate.

Anthony Magnabosco’s mission to engage with blind believers with kindness, calmness and by employing the Socratic method is laudable. To invite the counterpart for self-reflection through key epistemological questions is a constructive and respectful route, the key question being ‘How and why did I arrive at the beliefs I hold so dear?’

But my small beef with Magnabosco’s thinking is his own, albeit muted, skeptical tribalism that he hasn’t been able to shake off. Inasmuch as believers often betray a disturbing sense of collective moral self-righteousness and judgmentalism, the label of a ‘skeptic’, for many a young recruit, carries a self-serving thrill of belonging to an intellectual elite mocking, overtly or quietly, the ‘other’ tribe of superstitious idiots. Whilst not necessarily immune to a tribalistic sense of superiority, to Magnabosco’s credit, he attempts to replace mockery and fruitless argumentativeness with respect and constructive dialogue.

Yet, to earn the title of a skeptic, there is sometimes an unspoken expectation for a tribe-member to swallow, without question, a somewhat fixed skeptical gamut of ideas as equally silly and nonsensical. If you’re against aliens, you must also denounce all forms of dualism and theism, or else be no different from a ufologist, the tongue-speaking evangelical or the pot-smoking shaman. The by-product of this type of tribalism is hosts of novice skeptics in awe of preachy senior gurus somewhat uncritically (i.e. in an epistemologically sloppy manner) lumping together all weird-sounding and metaphysical-sounding claims as epistemologically equal. Whether it be the idea of a pixie, a unicorn, a flying saucer, Odin, weak mind-body dualism, strong dualism or apophatic theology. Not only are these ideas ontologically very different, but also epistemologically quite incompatible with one another.

A reasonable skeptic versed in epistemology is aware that, at least subconsciously, most of the things he regards compellingly real have never been preceded by a rigorous and painstaking personal application of the hypothetico-deductive method of science -- the method we are applying as best we can here at Metabunk in order to discover the most plausible hypotheses for the available (somewhat unimpressive) UFO evidence.

One of the most compelling truths to most skeptics (aside from the odd existentialist and solipsist), nay most people, is the existence of a mind-independent physical reality. None of us seriously consider the world to be illusory, a figment of our own imagination or subconscious, be it an incredibly real-seeming and uninterrupted dream or an elaborate simulation planted into our heads by something/someone. And yet such a (non-blind) belief in a mind-independent physical universe is the basis of most science, all our behavioural patterns, all our careers, and provides the basic intellectual premise for all our lives. The existence of a mind-independent physical universe is our shared metaphysical belief. Sense-data and observation alone are not logically sufficient for such an intellectual leap. In fact, an infant grows gradually into the realization of a mind-independent world.

The solipsist claim of possible illusion is a perfectly logical explanation to what we believe is the physical universe. The mathematical probability of illusion cannot be proven to be lesser than that of the realist claim. If someone claims to be able to prove the greater likelihood of the realist claim, I would love to see the math. Meanwhile, the realist belief is simply far more compelling. A physical realist espouses a metaphysical idea which doesn’t lend itself to scientific falsification as it is consistent with all possible observation statements. But so is its negation, the solipsist idea.

This very same non-blind ‘belief’ in something unprovable that regardless seems compellingly, repeatably and inter-subjectively true, concerns ‘some’ other sensible-seeming metaphysical ideas as well. ‘Some’ being the operative word here. These few metaphysical beliefs stand in diametrical contrast with blind belief in a cacophony of nonsensical metaphysical ideas embraced by religious or spiritually-minded masses.

The idea that reality, ultimately, does not pander to our selfish delusion of omniscience is a compelling one to the humble investigator. It represents an intellectually sane worldview to regard the existence as being far greater than us (not to be confused with god-of-the-gaps nonsense). That however much we may learn and know about the reality, something will always escape us, and by a far margin. Something beyond all humanly conceivable intellectual categories, linguistic descriptions and predicates which can never be even approached intellectually owing to our inescapable limitations as a species. Something which even our most profound philosophical or scientific concepts – be it time-space, singularity, quantity, infinity, energy, mass, law, force, power, heat, light, motion, consciousness and even the idea of existence itself – cannot describe. And that whatever it is that is beyond all that is humanly knowable can be reasonably called “divine”. And yet, as an utterly unknowable thing, this type of divinity rejects all the primitive, human-like and literalistic notions of god/gods bandied about by both mainstream and folk religion.

The foregoing thought pattern seems sensible, profound and even beautiful. And hence a reasonable skeptic would not glibly sweep all philosophical conceptions of ‘God’ into the garbage pile of nonsensical magic creatures, pizza monsters, sky daddies and little green men. To do so would be epistemologically sloppy, intellectually dishonest and morally condescending. It would also not be conducive to constructive dialogue.

Which brings us to the agnostic paradox. The paradox is a stumbling-block only for the ‘strong agnostic’ who claims with some level of conviction the ‘unknowability’ of metaphysical ideas, including God. It does not concern the ‘weak agnostic’ who simply honestly acknowledges not knowing God to exist while being open to the possibility of knowing in the future. The strong agnostic is usually a proponent of empiricism and/or scientism. That is, the belief that only what is scientifically provable or directly observable is knowable.

The agnostic paradox reads as follows: I know only what is scientifically proven to me. If something is scientifically unprovable, it is unknowable. Yet the foregoing claim is scientifically unprovable.

A shorter version of this paradox reads: Only what is scientifically provable is knowable, although I cannot scientifically prove it.

Another version of the paradox, formulated in religious language: I have an unscientific metaphysical belief that science is the only reliable means to acquire knowledge.

The epistemologically untrained often fail to understand that (1) moral experiences, our sense of right and wrong, (2) our consciousness experiencing and understanding profound aesthetic, philosophical, mathematical, political, scientific and ethical ideas, co-occurring with brain-states whilst untranslatable into neuroscientific terms, and (3) even the quiet and non-fanatical sense that there must be a greater reality beyond our comprehension, experienced by billions of level-headed believers across cultures and religions, while calling it by different names and offering various and often nonsensical descriptions to the indescribable, are not technically claims nor theories to be proven or disproven. They are 'experiences', sometimes compelling sensations of what is real, that can be consistent, repeatable, inter-subjective and dispassionate in the same way physical scientific observations are. Often even more so. A sane and rational investigator may justifiably accept them as truths but only after examining them carefully and after they meet the foregoing epistemological standards.

Ironically, sometimes it is the best of poetry, rather than the most rationally constructed academic argument, that has the greatest power to convey a gripping and lasting sensation of what is real. This poetic truth-conveying quality is also found in the most interesting verses of different religious scriptures, but they are all-too-frequently lost in between the off-putting ‘nonsense’ of the other verses. These select powerful scriptural passages are more similar than they are different between faith traditions. It is the noblest moral ideals and the deepest verses of these vastly different faith traditions that impart to billions somewhat universal moral principles, profound insights and high-minded inspirations.

The disunity of formal beliefs, the internal contradictions within various scriptures, and the hodgepodge of fantastical verses inherent in them are also a fact that cannot be swept under the carpet. It would be folly to deny that the formal belief systems and religious observances today represent a discordant cornucopia of theologies and rites. There is a lot in these traditions and books that does not appeal to the sound mind and the sincere heart (forgive my switch into allegorical device), but in fact feels like an affront to both. But it doesn’t discount the fact that a perfectly rational person can also honestly recognize universal power, wisdom, majesty, beauty and love inherent in these books and sincerely acknowledge that they represent a uniquely powerful brand of ’literature’ in their ability to inspire both moral heroism as well as destructive fanaticism (in the wrong hands, and when literally interpreted) in millions of people over countless centuries. To just glibly dismiss such a historically demonstrated power of world religions to influence the roots of human motivation as mundane and unremarkable cultural phenomena is as empirically unsound as it is to blindly accept them as pure unadulterated divine truth.

Let’s be sincere skeptics. Let’s be vehemently opposed to all nonsense and falsity. But let’s be sensible skeptics, independent in our search for truth, and non-tribalistic in our journey to find it. Let’s be open to what makes sense, is consistent with observation and can be repeatedly, inter-subjectively and dispassionately experienced as 'real', even if it comes from a surprising source espoused by the wrong club.

Thanks for your patience if you managed to bear with my ramblings this far!


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