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Street Epistemology

When to Abstain from Street Epistemology

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One question inevitably comes up when I give talks on Street Epistemology: is there ever a time when you should avoid having a conversation with someone that could cause them to doubt a belief? My answer has evolved a bit over hundreds of talks with believers. Today, if I think the person I am speaking with seems unusually dependent on a belief, I'll simply ask them if they want to believe true things.

If a person confirms that they want to hold true beliefs and discard false beliefs, I will usually continue with the discussion. Of course, the concept of "truth" can wildly vary from person to person, but that's a topic for another blog post. That said, if someone seems unsure as to whether they value truth, stay on the topic of truth until the reasons for their hesitation have been fully explored.

Some think older people should just be left alone when it comes to their beliefs. That reeks of ageism and disrespect to me. Would I have a conversation with a 77-year-old who believes in Christ because it was drilled into him as a kid? Absolutely. How about an elderly woman who believes her dead husband was communicating with her when a butterfly landed on her shoulder? Sure. What if a middle-aged woman who believes she has the uncanny ability to tell when people will die or not? Definitely.

The decision to start or continue a talk with a willing participant is ultimately your choice. There are no hard and fast rules here, with one exception: first, do no harm. For example, I once ended a talk with a person who believed a Pagan goddess protected her because there was something about her demeanor that suggested she was unusually dependent on this belief. My decision quickly proved to be mistaken: the same woman emailed me 30 minutes later, expressed gratitude for the talk, and asked to keep the discussion going, which we did.

Other times the decision to end a talk is clear: the person is mentally impaired by substance abuse, they have a serious illness and expect to die soon, they start to get upset and begin to threaten you, they stand by their proclamations of harming themselves or others if they no longer held the belief, or they are so closed off and defensive that it is nearly impossible to make any headway.

You should also probably avoid engaging in Street Epistemology on sensitive beliefs in situations where there is a power dynamic. For example, doctor and patient, professor and student, employer and employee, house owner and housekeeper, vendor and client. While a person could leverage their authority, I am personally uncomfortable using SE in situations where there is even the slightest perception I might be taking advantage of a social dynamic that confers authority. Street Epistemology works best when people on equal footing collaborate to explore a deeply-held belief.

What about using Street Epistemology with kids? For example, say you are babysitting your 7-year-old niece and she asks you about Noah's Ark. Instead of directly examining her claim, I might engage her with a related but fun scenario where she could practice her critical thinking skills, for example "I wonder if all the stuffed animals you own would fit on top of this table. What do you think?" Saving your epistemological conversations for later with her parents may yield long-term results for the entire family. I also suggest teaching your own kids how to use SE so they can do the work for you. Imagine sitting in your recliner while listening to your child engage their friend in some good-natured SE about monsters!

Another time to bail out of a conversation is when someone insists that you participate in one. A woman once insisted I interview her after concluding a talk with her friend, adding that her post-suicidal self-worth would be affected if I declined. It took several attempts to politely excuse myself before she finally conceded. Just as you should never force anyone to have a chat with you, don't let anyone manipulate you into speaking with them. The take-away here: only engage in SE if both parties have consented to participate in the conversation.

A middle-aged man once told me that he would go on a shooting spree if he no longer believed his good deeds were being tracked in some kind of metaphysical database. If I were new to Street Epistemology, I probably would have ended the talk and moved on. However, based on his earlier empathetic statements, he did not seem to be a real threat. We pushed past what was likely a defensive mechanism to protect his cherished belief, and afterwards I was delighted that we did. Use your best judgment here: if someone does make a credible threat of violence, end the talk and seek safety. Fortunately, most people are willing to honestly evaluate their beliefs. Even people who initially state that they would harm others if they no longer held a belief might only be saying so because they’ve heard others in their group say it.

Exercise your judgement on when to begin a talk, when to end a talk, and when to resume a talk. What might constitute a boundary for you might be acceptable for someone else. In doing so, consider the interlocutor's commitment to truth, their physical and emotional states, their willingness to partake in the conversation with you, and your availability to be there afterwards to provide any needed support.

Anthony Magnabosco is an agnostic atheist and frequent practitioner of Street Epistemology.


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