Birthers, Truthers, Deathers, and the Failure of Empiricism

Last Wednesday, President Obama decided to release his birth certificate to the general public in order to silence the “birthers” and the numerous people who doubted that he was, in fact, born in the United States.

Today, the president had decided not to release a photo of Osama bin Laden taken post-mortem.

In both instances, there are people doubting the validity of the claim. On the birth certificate issue, people are saying that the certificate is doctored up, or there are other bits of evidence that contradict the certificate. On the death of Osama, others are saying that we won’t produce a photo because Osama is actually dead (but even if one were produced, you know you’d have so-called ‘experts’ out there showing how it’s photoshopped).

We also have the “truthers” who deny that 9/11 was caused by a terrorist cell based out of the Middle East (the most simplistic explanation). Prior to the birth certificate, upwards of 20% of Americans doubted that Obama was born in the US. In a recent poll, upwards of 30% of Americans think the US government had something to do with 9/11. And rest assured that a multitude of Americans will doubt whether or not Osama bin Laden is actually dead.

What is going on in America? Do we just have an abnormally large number of people who are crazy, or is it something else? I would contend it’s something else.

Empiricism is the belief that all knowledge must be gained through sense-experience or through observation. In the philosophy departments at the turn of the century, the driving ideology in the study of epistemology was empiricism – all knowledge was gained through what we could observe, test, etc. Thus, morals, God, the soul, and everything else was cast aside. Even today when you argue with some people on the existence of God, they say, “Well you can’t falsify God,” which is code for, “You can’t do a scientific experiment on God.” Thus, they still adhere to empiricism when they assert that we must be able to perform an experiment on something in order to prove it.

Of course, empiricism died a quit and abrupt death within philosophy departments nearly sixty years ago. The reason is people realized that it was extremely problematic – empiricism can’t be tested, can’t be experienced, can’t be derived by sense experiences, so how could we know it is true? Furthermore, nothing in empiricism gave us a level where we could say that belief was justified; nothing in empiricism says that something isn’t knowledge until x amount of evidence is reached.

One thing that people often ignore is that what is found in the philosophy department eventually filters down into the public, though this can sometimes take anywhere from twenty year to two hundred years. The thing is, empiricism as a whole never really took off with the public, but instead ended up being a filtered, watered-down version. It is what led to the rise of subjectivity in morals, religion, and so on because we can’t really “prove” those things like we can “prove” the temperature of a casserole. Rather than rejecting emotions or religion, modern culture has turned these things into “feelings” and “spirituality.” But the underlying idea of empiricism – that knowledge is gained through sense-experience and observable data – is still the driving force behind our cultural epistemology.

With that in mind, is it any wonder that we have a society of extreme skeptics who won’t even accept photos as proof of something occurring? Remember, there’s nothing within empiricism that says, “once x has been met, a theory is justified.” So one person looks at the picture of the birth certificate and says, “That’s all I need to know it’s true.” Another person, however, looks at it and says, “It could have been faked” and can then demonstrate how to fake the birth certificate. In such a case, who is justified in their respective beliefs when we evaluate them empirically? Both.

So long as the birther, or the truther, or the soon-to-be-labeled “deather,” can provide a repeatable experiment justifying their claims, then they have met the burden of knowledge according to empiricism. Why is it that someone would need to see the picture of Osama bin Laden in order to believe he’s dead? Because “seeing is believing.” They can’t rely on the warranted belief that Osama bin Laden is dead, but instead require empirical proof. Someone won’t believe the birth certificate is real (especially if someone can cast enough doubt to show it’s a fake, even if the doubt is unwarranted) because there’s no sense-experience associated with it.

Yet we think such people are crazy when they’re only following a philosophy to its logical ends. This isn’t to say that evidence isn’t necessary in many instances (such as in a court), but merely that empiricism itself can’t adequately interpret or justify the interpretation of evidence. Evidence can and does work to prove a point, but only under a proper epistemological view (one that I won’t attempt to put forth right now, as it would be somewhere between skeptical realism and Plantinga’s warrant and proper function).

In the end, we’re seeing the logical conclusion of empiricism, which seems crazy to us because it is crazy. Yet, it was born out of philosophy departments and is still mostly embraced by the public when it’s convenient. “Don’t tell me there’s a God until you can falsify and experiment on such a belief, but on Osama bin Laden I don’t need to falsify the claim; I’ll simply take it as it is.” This is an inconsistency because no one can really live by empiricism, we’re not programmed that way so we can’t force ourselves into it.

So the next time you hear a birther, deather, or truther, remember that you don’t always have to see something in order to believe it.