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Friday, September 30, 2011

Another Forgotten Debate

Have you ever heard a religious person tell you that science and religion both require faith? That it takes just as much faith for you to believe in evolution, or even empiricism (!), as it takes for them to believe a myth written by stone age goat herders? Well, here's how it went down this time:

It started with a parable I wrote in response to a flawed logical refutation of empiricism:
Imagine someone making a claim that there is a buried jar of black jellybeans and antique Ford gear shift knobs of a very specific configuration and location. It's a reasonable claim for the person who buried it to make, but when you casually ask about it, they explain that they believe it on faith and they have no empirical reason whatsoever for believing it's there.

You would find the claim absurd, but then imagine them laughing back at you! How could you possibly know it's not there?
To this, the creationist responded with the usual argument that it takes just as much faith to believe in empiricism as it takes to believe in his religion.  It was a very long-winded version, but that's what it really boiled down to.  Here was my reply:
I don't see it as faith. I've given lots of ideas what I consider to be a fair try.  Some I accept, some I disbelieve, some I reject as nonsense, and some I consider still up in the air. For many religions, though, they claim that what I consider to be a "fair try" unacceptable. I will only drink your Kool-Aid if you first convince me that you are right. They say a "fair try" means fully believing it first. I can't do that because (1) there are too many different religions all making that claim to try them all and (2) my understanding of the brain tells me that it's easy to convince yourself of something false once you believe it.

But how do I know what I know about the brain? Isn't it a little circular to trust what empiricism tells me about brain function? Only if you're a nihilist! You don't have to say that empiricism is the only way to know anything as a first principle. You just accept that it can tell you something.... then....

Going back to my parable of the buried jar of specific things. Suppose that instead of "just faith" the guy makes the absurd prediction by telling another story that seems, at first to an outsider, to be just as crazy and unlikely as the prediction. Religions and science are in the same boat on this one.

But then suppose we look and he turns out to be right! We might still think it's a trick. Wouldn't we? But we might be willing to give it another look. Then suppose something even more miraculous happens. He uses the same crazy story to make another and another and another seemingly unrelated and totally absurd prediction. At some point, we start to lend a little weight to the story. Even if we don't believe the truth in the story, we must recognize that it has some power. At this point, religion and science are still in the same boat but they have started to diverge.

So, you then take it to the next level and try it out for yourself. Take the crazy story and use it to make a prediction of your own. If you then find that it actually works over and over, you're hooked on that story. It's no longer just a thing with some power, but it's a thing approaching that quality we might call "truth". But at this point in the parable, religion and science have completely diverged.

This only happens with the kind of story we call "science" and if it happened to a religion, we would simply apply the term "science" to that aspect of the religion that achieves the kind of magic that science achieves with the same kind of detailed and reusable story that science tells. There is no reason that a particular story or model can be only "religion" OR "science" and not both, other than the fact that there aren't many.

If you are looking to explain the world then religion might be a good tool.  Religions are designed to explain the world in a language that makes sense to people. In this sense it might even be fair to label some ways of thinking about evolution as "religion" because it makes sense and explains so much [or "faith" in the sense that you need some faith to not be a solipsist, though "not being a solipsist" is also an instinctual default that somewhat nullifies any label you try to apply to it]. So belief in evolution might be religion in that sense, but it's ALSO something else that faith and religion are not: Science makes outlandish predictions that turn out to be true! And it does so over and over in unexpected ways starting from the same seemingly absurd [to the uninitiated] story.

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