Home » Sye Ten Bruggencate and Tommy’s Compass

Sye Ten Bruggencate and Tommy’s Compass

A young boy of 12 named Tommy ventures, one day, into the woods between his home and school. There, deep in the woods, he discovers a compass on the ground.
Not knowing whether it works, he begins to test it everyday as he takes various routes back home from school. Provisionally assuming that when the compass arrow points north he is headed north, he consistently finds home exactly where that provisional assumption would have him expect. After a year of regularly using the compass with success, he places a high degree of confidence in the reliability of the compass, and intends to continue to use it.
Enter Sye Ten Bruggencate.
Sye: Tommy, what are you doing here in the woods?
Tommy: I’m on my way home.
Sye: How do you know which way is home?
Tommy: I found this compass that is quite reliable. I know it is quite reliable because I’ve been successfully using it to get home for the last year.
Sye: But could you be wrong?
Tommy: Well…sure. I could be wrong, but it has gotten me home successfully for the past year.
Sye: Tommy, if you could be wrong, how can you say you “know” the compass works?
Tommy: Well…I tested it.
Sye: But you could be wrong, right?
Tommy: Yes…but can’t I believe it will work to the degree that it has worked in the past?
Sye: Nope. You see, you run headlong into the problem of induction.
Tommy: What’s that?
Sye: Induction is the notion that regularities in the past justify beliefs about the future. But you have to justify induction. In order to justify induction, you have to hold the absolute presupposition that, because induction has worked in the past, it will continue to work in the future. This is a vicious circle, and therefore induction fails, and you do not, as you claim, “know” the compass works.
Tommy: I don’t understand. Why can’t I have confidence in induction only to the degree that it works and for as long as it works? Why do I need to invoke it as an absolute presupposition?
Sye: Well, you have to start with a presupposition somewhere.
Tommy: Why?
Sye: Are you trying to tell me you don’t have a presupposition to ground your beliefs on?
Tommy: That’s exactly what I am trying to say.
Sye: You made my point! You have no foundation to ground your knowledge, and therefore you can not “know” the compass works as you claim.
Tommy: It appears you are equivocating between “knowing” as it is commonly used, and some strange notion of “absolute knowing”, which I’m sure you’ll admit is not possible for any human.
Sye: I have absolute knowledge.
Tommy: In what?
Sye: In the rule of logic and the fact that my god exists.
Tommy: Very interesting. Through what mechanism did you acquire that absolute knowledge?
Sye: My god gave me the absolute knowledge directly.
Tommy: But through what mechanism?
Sye: There was no mechanism.
Tommy: No mechanism? Explain.
Sye: My god did it magically. There was no mechanism necessary.
Tommy: Magically? Your god’s magic allows you to violate logic? Where there is the conveyance of knowledge, there must be a mechanism, correct?
Sye: Well, perhaps, but my god does not need to justify the mechanism he employs. Who are you to question my mysterious god?
Tommy: Your god most certainly does appear to be mysterious, but he does not get a free pass on this. What is the mechanism through which he conveys absolute knowledge?
Sye: The mechanism is the Holy Spirit of my god.
Tommy: And how did you establish the infallibility of that Holy Spirit?
Sye: Why do I need to establish the infallibility of the Holy Spirit?
Tommy: Because you are claiming this Holy Spirit provides you with absolute knowledge. If your knowledge is to be absolute, any mechanism though which that absolute knowledge is provided must be infallible.
Sye: The Holy Spirit is infallible.
Tommy: Through which mechanism did you establish your Holy Spirit as infallible?
Sye: What do you mean?
Tommy: In order to claim absolute knowledge was conveyed to you through an infallible Holy Spirit, you must first establish through another mechanism that your Holy Spirit is indeed infallible. Right?
Sye: Well, I just assume that the Holy Spirit is infallible.
Tommy: Do you understand that you can’t get from an assumption to “absolute” knowledge? In fact, this “absolute” knowledge you claim to have appears to be impossible…unless you can explain to me how a subjective being can come to have “absolute” knowledge without this “absolute” knowledge being conveyed though some mechanism that must be vetted for infallibility through another mechanism that itself must be vetted for infallibility through yet another mechanism ad infinitum. Can you do that?
Sye: I don’t need to. You admit you could be wrong about your compass, and therefore my ideology is correct.
Tommy: What? Why couldn’t we both be wrong? If I believe in the Easter Bunny and you believe in Santa, and you pointed out the internal incoherency of belief in the Easter Bunny, do you think the internal inconsistencies of your belief in Santa magically disappear? It seems your entire argument is attempting to validate your own ideology by invalidating mine. Do you not see the problem here?
Sye: No.
Tommy: If I were to be wrong, it would not make you right. Do you understand?
Sye: No.
Tommy: (Sigh) Ok, let’s return to my compass. If you are saying I don’t have “absolute” knowledge my compass works, I agree with you. Are you saying more than that? Are you saying I don’t “know”, as “know is commonly defined, that the compass works.
Sye: Yes, that is exactly what I am saying.
Tommy: But how then can you claim to “know” your watch, for example, is working?
Sye: Because my knowledge is grounded in my god.
Tommy: No, your knowledge is grounded in your bald assertion that your god exists. You admit your god is a presupposition, and you are attempting to use this as a foundation for your “knowledge”, correct?
Sye: Well, you have nothing upon which to base your knowledge.
Tommy: Are you actually claiming the regularity I perceive in the repeated successes of my compass is less of a foundation for knowledge than your mere assertion of your god?
Sye: Yes. You are borrowing from my worldview in your claim of knowledge.
Tommy: (Sigh) So, in spite of the consistent successful use of this compass in getting me home, I can’t know the compass works since I don’t believe in your god, correct?
Sye: That’s right. Claiming you know requires that you borrow the foundation of my worldview.
Tommy: But you have merely presupposed that foundation rather than demonstrated it with evidence, right?
Sye: Correct. That’s the way it works.
Tommy: (Sigh) But you wouldn’t mind if I continue to use the compass to get home under the illusion that I know the compass is reliable, do you?
Sye grins with the satisfaction of winning yet another argument.
Sye: Feel free to pretend you know that your compass works. Just remember, it is only after you accept my ideology that you’ll be honestly able to say you know it works.
Tommy: Thanks for your instruction.

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