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Telling True From False

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

You can evaluate the quality of your cultural and personal knowledge concerning your problem by becoming more conscious and aware of your "epistemology". Epistemology is a fancy word that refers to the different methods you use to determine whether something is true or false. Your epistemology, then, is your own personal theory or idea about the nature of acceptable evidence; what are the conditions under which you know when something is true and when something is false.

Though everyone has an epistemology, at least implicitly, most people have never thought much about it, and aren't aware that it is important. For instance, many people have opinions about what is true and what is false, but they may be only vaguely aware of how they came to know that those things are true or false. They may have heard something in church or on TV, for instance, and just accepted what was said as true, because it seemed and felt true at the time. Often, people aren't even curious about how they know; They are content to continue believing what they currently believe so long as things they believe to be true continue to feel true. They are not typically concerned about testing their beliefs to see if they make sense. They are not often concerned that there be good evidence available to support their beliefs.

The big problem with being unconscious and unaware about your epistemology (with not caring whether there is good reason to think your beliefs are accurate) is that sometimes you can end up hurting yourself or making bad decisions when you think that things are one way, and they end up being another way. People who sky dive know to check and double check that their parachutes are correctly packed and in good working order before they jump out of planes, because they know that the truth about whether their parachutes are ready to deploy really matters. If their parachutes fail to deploy, they will end up dead! Skydivers cannot afford to take it as a matter of faith that their parachutes will open on command because to do so would be for them to put their very lives at risk. Just as it is a good idea for skydivers to check their parachutes prior to a jump, it is also a good idea for you to check the evidence for and against your beliefs and assumptions concerning the nature of your problem before you get started on a self-help project so that you can avoid misunderstanding your problem and ending up with an unworkable solution.

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