Quora Question: Why am I supposed to respect someone's deeply held beliefs if these are not rooted in facts?
People need to be respected. Beliefs need to be examined and adapted to reality. Beliefs require facts to be validated. Of course, anyone can believe anything they like. But, for beliefs to be respected in any rational sense of that term they need to be examined in light of reason and evidence. A belief without investigation and not rooted in facts does not require respect.
The notion that there are different facts for different people is incoherent. While people may disagree about what the facts are, there is a way that the world is. There are things we know about how the world works. And, to the extent that our beliefs stray from this, they are inaccurate.
So, the ultimate question is how we go about evaluating beliefs, both our own and others. A good set of criteria is outlined in How to Think About Weird Things by Theodore Schick and Lewis Vaughn. There are five elements to evaluate any belief or theory.
First, a theory or belief should be testable. If you cannot even figure out how to go about determining if your theory explains the evidence, you don't have a good theory. To be testable means your hypothesis "predicts something more than what is predicted by the background theory alone." In short, we need this criterion because if there's no way to tell whether a theory is true or false it's really no good to us.
Second, a theory/belief should be fruitful. What this means is that a good theory should make novel predictions. It should not only account for the evidence at hand but be able to address evidence that comes in later and even predict such new evidence. Einstein's theory of relativity is a good example of a fruitful theory because it made the novel prediction that light would be visible from a star behind the sun because the light would be bent by the gravitational field around the sun to be visible on earth. And, concerning criterion number one this was a testable claim. Once tested, it was verified.
Third, a theory should have a wide scope. That is, a good theory explains a wide field of evidence. One of the differences between theories and hypotheses is their scope. Hypotheses address specific questions whereas theories attempt to provide a broad explanatory device. Theories that can explain a wide array of things are preferred, other things being equal, to more narrow theories.
Fourth, a theory should be simple. This term should not be confused with simplistic. Many scientific theories are complex in terms of our ability to understand them but simple in the sense that they postulate fewer underlying entities or assumptions. A good example is a difference between Copernicus and Ptolemy. Ptolemy's geocentric theory could explain the orbits of the planets but it was quite complex whereas Copernicus' theory explained the same observable phenomena with less complexity. So, other things being equal, that theory was the better theory.
Think of it this way. Suppose I come up with a theory to explain how the lights in my housework but it involves little gremlins running inside the light bulbs. Someone else can explain the same phenomenon but without postulating gremlins. So, their theory is simpler than mine. It should also be pointed out that my gremlin theory may fail on other criteria as well such as being testable.
Finally, a theory should be conservative. Not in the political sense of the word. Rather, it should fit in with other things we know. If we have an explanation for something that we think is fairly certain and accurate then a new theory should fit in with that prior explanation. If it doesn't fit that may indicate our prior knowledge is flawed. We have to be open to that possibility but the burden of proof is on the new theory. An interesting examination of how this process works is offered by Thomas Kuhn's book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
Many people will be inclined to lodge the following criticism at this point: But, that’s "just a theory." The criticism here is supposed to be that any given theory is not a fact. But, this misunderstands the relationship between fact and theory. No theory is a fact because facts and theories are two different things entirely. The facts are what we observe about the world around us. But, these facts need an explanation. This is what a theory is designed to do. It is a well-formulated attempt to explain the facts we observe.
So, we observe the motion of the planets and the fact that an apple falls to the ground when we drop it. The theory of relativity attempts to explain these things. We observe different species and varieties of animals in the natural world and the theory of evolution attempts to explain how these varieties arose. We observe the motion of subatomic particles and the theory of quantum mechanics attempts to explain these observations.
In each case, we begin with observations and construct an explanation to account for them. In each case, it makes little sense to criticize the theory by saying it's not a fact. Of course not! Theories are not facts and do not attempt to be. Theories can be correct or incorrect and the criteria outlined above is the best way to determine this. But, you must also understand what a theory is attempting to do.
Going through this process with one’s beliefs is to be respected. Coming up with a belief without doing the hard work of understanding it, the evidence relevant to it, and evaluating the belief in light of what we know does not deserve respect.
However, the person, in any case, deserves respect as a person. We can disagree and discuss ideas, beliefs, and theories in a context of mutual respect, not for the beliefs (which are simply tools) but for each other.
KEVIN J. BROWNE
Philosopher / Educator