Archive for July, 2007

The Danger of “What If?”

by Jason Stotts

Hypotheticals are dangerous.

Epistemologically, one should only ever consider an idea for which there exists some evidence. This epistemological principle gives rise to the logical principle of the onus of proof, which states that if one posits a positive position, then one is required to show some evidence for that position. Failing to do so results in one’s position being categorically arbitrary and, as a consequence, worthy only of being immediately dismissed.

However, there are many people who consider it perfectly acceptable to posit whatever sort of arbitrary position that they may wish, as long as they preface it by saying something like “what if…”. For example: “what if martians are made out of Jell-O?” There is no evidence that life exists on Mars and, furthermore, how would they have come to be made out of a human desert is unclear. Thus, this kind of statement should be dismissed out of hand. Now, this is different from a claim of the sort: “life might exist on Mars”. This is because this latter claim posits no more than a potential for which there is no counter evidence. Furthermore, given that we have discovered frozen water on Mars, there is some evidence that life could exist there, even though we have no evidence that life does exist there.

I write this only to point out that one must be exceedingly careful in one’s basis of belief. Kant effectively said “what if there were categories of our mind that structure reality”, even though there is no evidence for his position. Pascal effectively said “what if god exists…”, even though there is no evidence for that position. They were both exceedingly wrong and primarily because they violated a fundamental epistemological rule.

Make sure that all of your beliefs and claims have evidence to support them.