Over the past week I have engaged a number of christians on Twitter, and it seems as though evidence for beliefs, and specifically, what is it that makes beliefs valid or invalid. So I want to address directly the nature of valid and invalid beliefs, and then would like to shift my focus to one tweeter in particular and the pope and some comments he recently made.
Because christians and atheists always seem to start running into problems here, each criticizing the other of not having evidence to justify their beliefs. Thus, determining the relationship between evidence and beliefs is essential to trying to move the discussions forward…maybe even to the point of dialogue. I would like to approach the subject by way of a thought experiment – after a slight preamble.
Why do we develop beliefs? We need to be able to survive, and surviving in the world requires understanding it, what is safe and what is not safe, who will help you and who will hang you out to dry. Our ability to survive and prosper is contingent upon our ability to develop beliefs that accurately reflect the nature of the world around us. To the degree our beliefs reflect reality, the greater our ability to successfully understand and manipulate the world.
(The following thought experiment is not intended to insinuate any belief regarding the intelligence of early human beings.)
Consider two early human beings, HB A and HB B. Their people are gatherers and hunters, and they have entered an area they have never been in before. Most of these people start eating what we would call mushrooms for sustenance. Over time, HB A notices that the people eating the mushrooms, including himself, are getting sick consistently after eating the mushrooms. HB A develops the belief that the mushrooms are causing the sickness, stops eating them, and successfully encourages some others to avoid them. HB B, however, doesn’t pay attention to this causal relation, or even trying to figure out why he and others were getting sick; he was content to just do what the majority were doing – akin to a “When in Rome…” line of reasoning. Within a short amount of time, HB A and the individuals who listened to him, were no longer getting sick and had started to eat other things. HB B and those that failed to come to the belief that the mushrooms were causing their sickness, died from the accumulation of poison in their bodies. What, then, is the difference between the content and validity of the beliefs held by HB A and HB B?
The most obvious difference between HB A and HB B is that HBA’s beliefs allowed him to survive, while HB B’s beliefs caused his death; HB A survived while HB B did not. HB A stands in strong contrast to HB B, because HB A paid attention to the world around him: he noticed that people got sick when they ate the mushrooms and that they didn’t get sick when they ate various other things. He developed the belief that mushrooms must be bad for him and that he ought to find other things to eat that will not make him sick. He was even able to get some others to listen to him and abstain from eating the mushrooms. Through observation of what was being eaten and health, he was able to notice a causal relationship between mushrooms and sickness. HB B, on the other hand, did not pay attention to how things in his environment, like the food he consumed, affected him – nor did many others. He preferred to base his beliefs on what the beliefs of the majority were…and because the majority were content eating the mushrooms, he was too. The ultimate result of the formation of two opposing beliefs and acting on them was that HB A, and those who listened to him, survived, and HB B and those he followed all died.
HB A consulted the world around him and his experiences to develop beliefs about the world. He did not assume mushrooms were okay to eat because everyone else was, but chose to pay attention to how they affected him and others over time. He also noticed how other foods could be consistently consumed without causing sickness. HB A’s beliefs then, were based on experience, observation and experimentation. Tangible evidence was collected and analyzed to come to the belief that mushrooms, unlike some other foods cause sickness, and consuming them is bad for us. This belief about mushrooms gave HB A and those who listened to him a survival advantage over those who remained wilfully ignorant about their relationship with the world and the things in it, and how this affected their well-being.
Not only did HB A’s beliefs give him and others a survival advantage, it allowed them to develop the belief that some foods are going to be good for us and some will not be. As a result they were careful when coming across new foods, observed for signs of sickness, and immediately quit the consumption of foods that indicated they may be dangerous. This allowed them to start making more beliefs, and these beliefs grew increasingly complex as pre-existing beliefs support one another to justify the inclusion of a new belief, or to refrain from accepting another belief. HB A also noticed that the same item of food cannot be both good and bad for him, because that doesn’t make sense. And if someone told him that is daytime and night time simultaneously, he would know that it is one or the other, but that it is clearly not both. HB A was able to recognize that beliefs cannot conflict with one another if they are to guide action. And thus, whenever HB A came across two or more beliefs that contradict one another, he knew that further investigation is required to determine which, if any of these beliefs, is most likely the case. HB A, then, because of how he developed his beliefs was able to develop knowledge of the world.
HB A’s beliefs are valid beliefs. Valid beliefs are based on interacting with the world around you, making observations, experimenting, and are able to guide action successfully – to the degree that the beliefs reflect the actual state of things. As beliefs are developed through a methodical approach to understanding the world, beliefs begin to develop out of each other, are confirmed by testing the belief in the world, and either maintaining, modifying or omitting it altogether depending on whether or not it is supported by experience. Valid beliefs are also characterized, as I just mentioned, by not being static: valid beliefs should reflect the world and what can be demonstrated about it.
HB B’s beliefs were invalid. He was satisfied accepting the beliefs of others, but these people themselves did not bother inquiring why they were getting sick or if they could do something to prevent it. They just assumed that the food would not hurt them, and, resultantly died. Invalid beliefs are characterized by not making reference to a methodical approach to understanding the world (aka a sloppy, unstructured or unrepeatable method), or do not bother making reference to the world or experience at all, content to not think at all or make assumptions.
Having established the difference between valid and invalid beliefs, I would like to turn my attention to one particular member of the Twitterverse - @DrCACoats. Over this past week, @DrCACoats and I became engaged in a discussion regarding the validity of the atheistic belief that there is no evidence for god, as well as the validity of the christian position that there is a god, and that this belief is valid. Let me start by saying that he refused to provide evidence for the existence of god, but never waivered in his belief that god is real and that I am wrong for not believing in god. His inability to provide evidence that the christian god exists is the first indication that his belief is invalid.
He also said that the atheist position, that of believing there is no evidence for any god, is fideistic (reliance on faith alone, not reasoned). Atheism, however, is first and foremost concerned with justifying its beliefs with evidence – a careful examination of the world, discussing findings with others who can test for the same issues, considering the belief in light of one’s other beliefs to determine if it creates conflicts, and determining whether the contradiction is due to fallacies in previously developed belief or if there is something invalid about the new belief. No one has ever presented the evidence required for atheists to accept that any god exists. And again, @DrCACoats was unable to justify or validate his belief by citing evidence.
Not only is atheism a valid position, but given there is no evidence for any god, it is also the most honest and responsible position. It is too bad he just kept telling me how foolish I was instead of demonstrating why his belief is not invalid. But I haven’t met a christian on Twitter yet who would rather honest and discuss the (un)justification for their belief in god.
Next, I would like to briefly discuss the pope and his comments on evolution and science on AmericanCatholic.org titled No Conflict Between Faith, Science, Pope Says (by Michael Lawton). In the article the pope is quoted as saying that it is not a matter of “deciding either in favor of a creationism, which out of principle excludes science from its considerations, or in favor of a theory of evolution, which underplays its own gaps and refuses to see questions which go beyond the methodological possibilities of natural science.”
So even here the pope is arguing that science is dishonest about the gaps in its understanding, and that the evidence suggests looking beyond the possibilities of science. So, without asserting evidence, argues that science is dishonest about what it does and does not know, and that scientists refuse to look beyond the possibilities of natural science. But what does this mean? Is the pope suggesting going beyond what can be evidenced to explain those areas of science that we do not yet understand?
As it turns out, this is not what he is suggesting…it is what he is arguing. Lawton writes, “Pope Benedict also took a firm stand against science books’ tendency to suggest that things came about by nature and evolution.” The pope, then, is with invalid beliefs telling people to distrust science and scientific theories like evolution. He also states that the pope argued, “Nature and evolution are made up of many individual steps, and the pope insisted that one must look beyond nature and evolution for a guiding principle.” The pope actually instructed people to look beyond evidence in order to explain the world around them.
Well, thanks Ben, you have once again demonstrated just how invalid your beliefs are. I will stick with atheism and valid beliefs.
Originally Blogged March 26, 2011