Leading Horses to Water

Ancient Greeks began the way of thinking originally known as natural philosophy but which we now call science.  Science emerged as we know it during the Renaissance, in an age dominated by fear, superstition, injustice, and brutality.  In other words, pretty much like the present.  These musings are aimed at explaining how science works, and how science can serve even nonscientists in their efforts to make sense of the world.  I can try to explain things but it’s up to you to decide whether or not you wish to drink from these waters.

#3 - Moderates rationalizing the irrational

American Heathen:  aired: 29 July 2011

Although there are many thousands of flavors of christianity (to say nothing of other religions), it seems to me that only the christian fundamentalists seem to be consistent with the biblical foundation for their faith.  Either the bible is the inspired word of god, or it’s not.  If it is, then believers are compelled logically to accept the bible literally (including its falsehoods and contradictions).  If a believer finds some parts of the bible to be inconsistent with something else in his or her life (like logic or science), then either the bible wins or it loses.  Many moderates I know, including many of my scientific colleagues, choose to interpret various biblical passages as metaphor or something other than the literal truth, obviously to dance away from any conflict between the bible and the reality they accept – an expedient interpretation.  In doing so, they implicitly deny the authority and credibility of the bible as a foundation for their beliefs.  Most scientists I know who are christians don’t believe the universe (including our Earth) is only 6000 years old, nor do they deny the validity of evolution as a means of understanding how species have come to change over the billions of years of life on Earth.  Thus, they must find a way to resolve the conflict between the bible and their acceptance of evolutionary biology, astronomy, and geology.  Once you begin “cherry picking” which parts of the bible you can interpret in some way other than literally, there’s no limit.  Ultimately, you can see the whole work as simply late Bronze Age and pre-Renaissance mythology as written down over time by a collection of human authors, in which case it can be seen as just another work of fiction.

Although everyone is free to think what they like and even to express those beliefs publicly in this secular nation (the USA), I find it a great puzzle why otherwise intelligent folks feel compelled to rationalize their irrational beliefs.  If you have an unshakable faith, without regard to any questions of evidence, then why bother to seek and accept evidence to support your beliefs?  I take “faith” to mean “belief in the absence of evidence” and so it’s at least logically consistent to deny the validity of any evidence that seems to gainsay your beliefs.  If you do so, however, it’s totally inconsistent to accept any evidence that supports your beliefs, as well!  In science, if you accept the relevance of evidence (as you must, if you’re to be a scientist), you must be willing to accept whatever the evidence reveals, without regard to its possible deleterious impact on your preconceived notions.  You can’t reject evidence simply because it contravenes your beliefs. 

There are standards for evidence, naturally.  The most compelling evidence is that which was collected with the express purpose of invalidating some hypothesis.  That is, in science, data collection and laboratory experiments should be designed to provide the most rigorous test possible of any proposed idea – to invalidate that idea, if possible.  An idea that can’t be invalidated by well-designed data collection or a controlled experiment is simply not within the domain of science, but remains in the realm of unsubstantiated speculation.  Real scientists don’t always live up to this ideal, and often are criticized for that (and justifiably so) by their peers.  Scientists engage in speculation all the time, but they also understand that their ideas must be tested before they can become accepted by their peers to provide a basis for claiming increased understanding.  For instance, string theory is a marvelous mathematical construction and many physicists are exploring string theory as I speak, but until there’s solid evidence derived from some rigorous tests based on predictions using the theory, it’s only an idea floating in the realm outside of validated scientific understanding.  Science works in a practical sense when that understanding is applied to some real world problem, because it’s been tested and shown to work!  Quantum theory was mere speculation in the early 20th century, but its survival of many rigorous tests has led to most of the existing electronic technology many Americans take for granted today.

Evidence based on hearsay, the testimony of a small number of untrained eyewitnesses, or documentation in texts by unknown authors, as in the case of biblical “evidence”, is simply not credible evidence.  The bible can’t be used to provide any evidence in support of biblical statements – the evidence must be independent and, whenever possible, repeatable.  No one has provided any body of evidence, to the best of my knowledge, that supports everything in the bible.  Not everything in the bible is illogical or demonstrably false, of course.  That a few nuggets of truth are contained within the vast overburden of myth, falsehoods, and contradictions doesn’t mean that the bible is literally true in all respects, which is a logical expectation if it were the work of an infinite deity.  Such an infinite diety should easily be able to produce a book with no ambiguity (room for misinterpretation), either.

The pseudo-science of creationism, in whatever guise (such as “intelligent design”) seems utterly pointless to me.  Someone has worked very hard to construct something that has a superficial resemblance to science, apparently in order to provide the appearance of a rational basis for the irrational beliefs of fundamentalist christianity.  The very existence of such a pseudo-science is direct evidence of the deep-seated conflict many christians must feel about their faith.  That they attempt to rationalize the irrational reveals their lack of faith!

Science is not a religion but rather a tool for those who wish to think for themselves about the natural world.  Its primary characteristic is its willingness to entertain questions from those who wish to obtain believable answers.