When it comes right down to it, human beings have to operate on belief. To survive, we cannot prove and demonstrate every aspect of life anew each day. Based on past experience, we believe that the sun will rise each day. When we take trip on an airplane we believe it will get us there. But there are two kinds of belief. There is belief based on the intangible and belief based on the observable and demonstrable.

Belief in a deity or a greater power is belief in the intangible. I’m not saying that a higher power does or does not exist. I am saying that there is absolutely no physical evidence that the universe in which we live was created by such a power or that such a power intervenes directly in our lives. Nor is there any physical evidence of an afterlife. All that may or may not exist, but all religions that postulate any or some of those beliefs as fact are based on faith, not on observable or provable evidence. Conceivably, if improbably, in my opinion, that could change. Robert Sawyer wrote a science fiction novel [Calculating God] in which a future human society and an alien society discover such observable and physical proof of the existence of a higher power.

So when critics of science insist that scientists operate on belief and that the sole difference between scientists and fundamentalist deity-worshippers is in what they believe, the only element of truth in that assertion is that, by necessity, all humans operate on what they believe, to a large degree, in their everyday lives. The question isn’t whether we believe; it’s what we believe.

At one time, the Catholic Church insisted that the earth was the center of the universe. Giordano Bruno insisted otherwise, particularly that stars were actually suns similar to our own, with planets with life upon them, and that there was no “Celestial center” to the universe. Unsurprisingly, given the fervor of true believers and a Church wanting to maintain control, his “beliefs” were denounced, and he was executed. He was, of course, largely correct, especially in overall concept, and the guardians of religion were wrong, as they have been to a great degree whenever they have opposed what science has discovered.

One of the problems that believers in intangibles have is that all too many of them want a simple and complete explanation to the universe. Belief in a supreme deity offers such. So, in a more limited way, does intelligent design explain where we as a species came from – except that explanation is totally at variance with what science has discovered.

Science cannot offer the sweeping absolutes that religion does, because science is based on what we have discovered, and we have not yet discovered everything that is potentially discoverable about life and the universe. In the recent past centuries of scientific progress we have learned more and more about both, but whether we will ever learn everything, I suspect, is unlikely. To me, belief based on facts and what can be demonstrated to be so, even if such explanations of the universe and life are not totally complete, is far more satisfying than simplistic wish-fulfillment. And, in the meantime, until all the evidence is in, I’m perfectly happy in not knowing whether there is or is not a supreme deity, especially since, if there does happen to be such a deity, given all we’ve undergone as a species, there’s certainly no proof that such a deity is unreservedly just and beneficent.

7 thoughts on “Belief…”

  1. Joe says:

    The fact that people happen to believe in deities is evidence of our cognitive structure. Aliens might be most perplexed as to why we would come up with such a preposterous idea. Religions are software for human brains. They are a hodge-podge of heuristics which kept the tribe alive, and things that help us calm our emotional side when our rational side can’t cope.

    People in the deserts of the middle east got ill from bacteria, hence circumcision. Their husbands kept killing each other, hence multiple wives. Homosexuality doesn’t produce kids, hence discourage homosexuality. Peasants don’t see much point following the rulers, hence promise them heaven if they do as they’re told, and invent the “divine right of kings”.

    The worst thing about the world is that things aren’t really predictable. Wars, crop failure, friends becoming enemies, and family dying are all real dangers. So it’s not too surprising that most of us feel the need for a parent to shield us. A holy father. The fact rationality may suggest such a being doesn’t exist gives one all the more reason to repress it to feel ok.

    Humans also hold such beliefs about the government helping them, justice being reliable, corporations caring, democracy actually occurring, that one’s fellow citizens wouldn’t slaughter others, or that it is worth fighting for one’s country. But in the cold light of rationality, most of these beliefs prove to have little basis in fact, which makes for a most unpleasant world to live in. Hence the adage, ignorance is bliss.

  2. Frank says:

    Agreed that religion acted as a societal control on behavior. Granted that a causal relationship exists, or appears to exist, between many of the “actions” and/or “conditions” and their respective “remedies” found in religious doctrine. And I agree with the imagery of the “parental” deity…”holy father” and its calming effect on the frightened masses.

    I do think, however, that there is a good deal of our observable universe that could lead one to predict a “higher meaning/purpose/direction” than mere entropy. I’m not saying that a “legend based” religion, using all human metaphors and set on this one planet is anything other than a single shot in a very large dark, but I don’t see any verifiable proof saying that one legend is more possible than another. Nor do I see that the “facts” lead one to atheism any more reasonably than to any other possibility.

    What I am trying to say is that organized religions and other institutionalized forms of superstition may have seen their utility atrophy to the point of diminishing returns, however, one shouldn’t become dogmatic in one’s avoidance of anything that smacks of spirituality. I think one of the reasons why we all are on this blog is because LEM’s stories seem to integrate a bit of “magic” that seems more benign than the Inquisition or the current Jihad. The “magic” makes us feel good, and LEM doesn’t make you swear it’s true or real…just allows you to be entertained and feel good…for a while.

  3. Daze says:

    From the New Scientist Feedback column of 22 July 2006 (NB: the Feedback column is not serious – clarification for those immune to irony*):

    “Alatrism” would be formed from the word “alatry”, the practice of not bothering to worship any deities, regardless of how many there may be (recall “idolatry” and the prefix “a-” for “no” or “not”). This brings us to Feedback’s Statistical Proof of Alatry.

    It goes like this. The only thing we know about deities with any certainty is that the number of them is a whole number, the idea of a fractional deity being frankly absurd. So the number of deities in our universe is an integer, in the range from minus infinity to plus infinity. (We leave the theologians to interpret a negative number of deities: this is number theory, and its conclusion should save them the trouble.)

    For it is commonly accepted that we should expect our universe to be typical of possible universes. So the expected number of deities is in the middle of the range of possibilities. That is, zero. Quod erat demonstrandum.

    * (Irony is the opposite of wrinkly).

  4. Jeff says:

    Interesting thoughts on belief and faith. I know some people who still believe that they are the center of the universe! I will have to check out Calculating God.

  5. Tony says:

    The difference between the pre-modern and the modern worldview is one of epistemology. The basis of knowledge in the pre-modern worldview is superstition, magic, legend, ritual, and mythology. These traditions of magic and myth form the evidence of man’s place within the world, make sense of the world, and provide meaning to people’s lives. Historically, conservatives like Edmund Burke have been skeptical of reason (and science) and have put greater reliance in the knowledge embedded in inherited customs, traditions and institutions.

    The basis of knowledge in the modern worldview is experience, validated (or rejected) through a falsifiable process of an injunctive paradigm followed by observation or experimentation followed by peer review. This experience may be sensory (e.g. physical vision), mental (e.g. mathematics), or spiritual (e.g. meditation). While mental processes are “intangible” (e.g. electricians represent current as the square root of negative one – an “imaginary” number), they are no less “real” than sensory processes. Indeed, the digital revolution is based upon “intangible” computational theory and the “intangible” mathematical model of the Turing machine. (Similarly, no one would argue that emotional states like love, hate, fear, hope, and so on are not “real,” even if those these emotional states are intangible.)

    Thus, I would say that modern science and technology relies on both physical evidence from sensory motor processes and mental evidence from introspective processes like mathematics and logic. This mental evidence qualifies as “intangible,” since it does not exist in the concrete, physical world of the senses. From the rational/ scientific worldview, I would say that (1) there is no concrete sensory evidence establishing the undisputable existence of a supreme being and (2) that the evidence from verifiable mental processes—such as mathematics and logic—do not support the undisputable existence of a supreme being.

    However, an interesting debate would begin around the idea of a spiritual empiricism, that one could employ the scientific process of injunction/ observation/ peer review to post-rational or trans-rational processes such as medication and contemplation. If one were to accept that knowledge obtained through experiential mysticism was valid, then one might find acceptable evidence of the undisputed existence of the divine. Of course, the kind of “divinity” discovered through spiritual empiricism would look nothing like the mythical supreme being of the pre-rational worldview….

  6. D Archerd says:

    o Fact – something I believe
    o Belief – something I do not believe

    Because those things we truly believe, we simply accept as facts.

    One other thing to keep in mind about Science – it cannot provide The Truth. Only religion can provide The Truth because it does not brook qualifiers or exceptions. What Science can do – and this is no mean feat – is provide explanations of the natural world and universe which are progressively less wrong.

  7. Ryan Jackson says:

    Pretty sure Kinowin in Colors of Chaos covered Fact v Truth very well. 🙂 There is no Truth. Truth is what we feel, believe, think based on numerous factors, some involving fact, some faith.

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