Anthony Magnabosco | Street Epistemology

About Anthony Magnabosco
Anthony Magnabosco is a skeptic and atheist from Texas, USA. He is well-known for his YouTube channel where he practices Street Epistemology in conversation with random people, to find out if they have good reasons to believe their claims, for example that God exists. Magnabosco is also a founder and the current Executive Director of the nonprofit organization Street Epistemology International. His calm voice in combination with a great understanding of epistemology and the ability to listen to people has given him tens of thousands of followers.

How would you explain what Street Epistemology is to someone who never heard of it?
– I would start by appealing to their sense of frustration that they probably experienced when they’ve tried to talk to someone that they disagree with, about a topic, e.g. if there is a God. I think we want to talk about these interesting topics, but when we do we tend to argue instead of discussing. Street Epistemology is a way where you can still explore how somebody came to their conclusion without arguing. Most often the conversation becomes more effective and productive. The method is basically wrapped up in asking a lot of questions, or even interviewing somebody about how they arrived at their conclusion. But it’s not a one way directed dialogue either; we want people to learn the method so that they can then in turn use it on our positions. Ultimately, we’re trying to find out if our beliefs are corresponding to the actual truth of the matter.

Why is it important that people do not walk around with false beliefs?
– I have a hypothesis that we have maps of reality in our minds. I want to make sure that my map and the maps of people in my community are accurate. These people teach my kids in school, they vote in our elections, they do my taxes and so on. Beliefs affect how we live and I think it’s better for everybody if people only believe things with high confidence if they have good reasons for it. If they don’t have good evidence for it to be true, I think it’s beneficial to lower the level of confidence they have in it being true.

Anthony Magnabosco, setting up the cameras for his Street Epistemology videos.

I understand you have been influenced by the philosophy professor at Portland State University, Peter Boghossian?
– Yes, that’s correct. Peter Boghossian, who is very familiar with the Socratic method, started realizing from talking to people who believe in a god that they often will say that the way they know something to be true is because they take it on faith. He ended up writing a book, A Manual for Creating Atheists, in which he identifies a way of engaging with people where you use questions to challenge them on that specific claim. That appealed to me back in 2012, because I’m an atheist and I was having horrible conversations with people about religion and the existence of a god. They weren’t even conversations to be honest, but just arguments. Peter and I became friends and we ended up learning that the method can be used with people who make all sorts of claims; not just claims about gods. Peter has since then written another book called How to have impossible conversations.

– One of the main reasons Peter’s book appealed to me was because I was losing friendships and relationships due to arguments about if God is real or not. When I discovered this approach, my engagements improved tremendously and my relationships thrived. When I first went out to practice Street Epistemology, all I wanted to talk about was why people thought God was real. I later expanded to other topics as well, but the method is extremely useful when talking to religious folks, I think it can help them to be more introspective when they’re reflecting on their methods for arriving at certain conclusions. It is very useful tool for atheists but it shouldn’t be limited to just that.

“How confident are you that that is factually true? What do you think is your biggest reason for thinking that is the case? If that reason wasn’t available to you, would you be just as confident that it’s true? How did you conclude that that is a good reason?”

Have you ever thought of scheduling a Street Epistemology conversation with a religious scholar who might be more used to think in epistemological terms regarding their religious beliefs?
– I have actually met up with pastors and street preachers – people who have degrees in theology. These people have experience with a specific doctrine and they are experts with the beliefs that they hold. But here is the big secret: their reasons and methods are no better than the reasons and methods anyone on the street will give you. It just takes more time to realize because they have more reasons and methods to surface, but your experienced theologian doesn’t seem to have any better reasons to believe what they do than anybody else.

What would be examples of typical Street Epistemology questions?
– Here are a few to start of with: what exactly do you mean by that word? How confident are you that that is factually true? What do you think is your biggest reason for thinking that is the case? If that reason wasn’t available to you, would you be just as confident that it’s true? How did you conclude that that is a good reason? Is there any way that we can test that reason to see if it holds up a scrutiny? What might be a better way of arriving at the truth than the method that you’re currently using? What would your life be like if we discovered that you don’t have any good reason for thinking that this is true?

In your Street Epistemology conversations, you are pursuing the truth. The objective truth, that is. What are your thoughts on the post-modern view in which objective truth is replaced with subjective truths, I.e. the idea that what is true for you is not necessarily true for me?
– I didn’t realize what big of a problem this was until I started going out interviewing people. Twenty minutes into the conversation I would realize that the person views truth in subjective terms. It was a bit of a shock to me how many people that would think that opinion supersedes fact. Opinions do not supersede facts! It might in somebody’s mind, but in reality truth is objective. I would call it a conversation roadblock, because it is extremely difficult to explore the quality of a person’s reasons for thinking something is true if they will make an appeal to the notion that it’s true because they just think that it is.

Logotype of Street Epistemology International.

– However, we have come up with a couple of different questions that can help to break through that barrier. It turns out that most people do actually think truth is objective even though they might initially say they don’t. Having the person discover that this belief is more of an opinion than a factual claim about reality could be extremely useful. It’s the act of questions and dialogue that can help a person to discover the problems with their worldview and outlook. That’s what I love so much about this approach. It helps people discover fundamental things about their beliefs and they don’t want to punch you in the face afterwards.

What would you say are the most common mistakes people make when they engage in discussions and conversations? 
– People are not listening to what the other person is saying, but instead queuing up the next response. We also often make assumptions about what the other person thinks. This leads of course to misunderstandings and we talk past each other, with increasing frustration. I think the problem is the idea that because we have a disagreement, we need to now have a battle to see who will be the victor. With Street Epistemology, we try to frame it as a partnership. How can we work together to figure out if you use good reasons to derive a high degree of confidence that you have the truth? Then you can hit me back up with those same questions, because I want to make sure that my confidence is in line with the reality of the situation too.

“After having talked to hundreds or maybe even a thousand people who believe in a god and listening to all the reasons and methods they have to back up that belief, it really does seem to me that the quality of the reasons people tend to give for thinking it’s true are simply insufficient.”

Have your view on religion been affected in any way since you started practicing this method?
– I have not changed my position on whether or not God is real. I’ve probably become even less certain that a god is real. After having talked to hundreds or maybe even a thousand people who believe in a god and listening to all the reasons and methods they have to back up that belief, it really does seem to me that the quality of the reasons people tend to give for thinking it’s true are simply insufficient. Hence, I think I’ve become a bit more resolute in my confidence on that topic, but I’m not locked in. I’m still open to changing my mind, even on that.

What’s the strongest experience you have had while practicing Street Epistemology?
– My best conversations are available in a playlist on YouTube. One that comes to mind was a young college student named Maritza, who initially took the subjective route about truth, “It doesn’t really matter if I’m believing true things or not, as long as I get value from it. That’s good enough for me.” she said. Twenty minutes later into that conversation she realized that she did value truth and that it was important. She concluded that even though it might be painful to let go of a belief, she’d be willing to do that. That was an amazing talk. Then it got even better because she came back for a second talk where we looked into one of her claims. This was a supernatural claim that spirits are real and they don’t die right away. She believed that the spirits can get thirsty so you should leave water out for them.

Anthony Magnabosco, the founder of Street Epistemology International.

– In the end, she realized that what she was calling evidence is insufficient to conclude with a high degree of certainty that spirits are real. It wasn’t me telling her, but instead her discovering that on her own. She even said something like “now I’m going to have to re-think all of my faith beliefs!” Just exploring that one belief that she had, I think had the potential to profoundly affect how she viewed all of her beliefs. That’s exactly what we want to do with Street Epistemology. We want to encourage people to occasionally take a look at their confidence and re-evaluate. Am I justified in being really, really sure that that’s true?

If somebody is interested in learning Street Epistemology, how should they proceed?
– You should probably start by asking yourself what the best way for you to learn something is. Do you learn better when you read a book? There’s the two books by Peter Boghossian to start with. Do you learn better by listening to people talk about stuff? We have a Reddit and a Discord. Maybe you want an app? There’s an app you can download called Atheos where you can teach yourself these techniques. Personally, I think the best way to grasp the potential of this method and also start learning it is to watch the videos on YouTube. Everything you need to know is available at www.streetepistemology.com.

What book would you like to recommend?
– Would it be okay to recommend a podcast instead? There’s a wonderful podcast called You Are Not So Smart, where the host David McRaney brings out experts that explain the things our brains are doing to lock us into poorly formed ideas, and hinder us from changing our minds.