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Michael Moszczynski's Weblog
Probability and certainty, science and religion 20.IV.2006 01:06
In my discussion courses this year, especially Religion and Film, I was often told by more relativistically-minded classmates that it's closed-minded to think that 'right' and 'wrong' beliefs exist at all, that faith and taste are both private matters, not subject to judgement. I think this is ridiculous. One of the big problems in the modern way of thinking is our preoccupations with certainty and equality – which lead us to the conclusion that, when things aren't certain, all possibilities are equal. Now, I don't believe that certainty exists at all, at least not for the human mind – rather what we have are sets of probabilities. We apply this kind of thinking every day – in, say, risk management – but when it comes to more contentious issues (especially the news) suddenly every possibility is an equal one. I think there are wrong things to believe (intelligent design) and that people should be called out for believing them. Unfortunately, our society seems to be more and more tolerant of stupid theories when they are mere possibilities.

Let us start with a simple example: I'm holding a ball in my hand, and I'm going to let go of it. What should I think this ball is going to do? In my opinion, the correct thing to believe is that it will fall – even though there's a chance it won't, because of any number of possible factors that of which I might be unaware, from anomalous wind patterns to God. However, I think a person would be a fool to say that since both it rising and it falling are technically possible, a person would be just as 'right' to say that it will fall up as that it will fall down. Of course, I think it would be ridiculous in the extreme to say that the two possibilities should be given equal credence. It's right to believe that the book will fall, and wrong to believe otherwise.

In fact, I think everyone agrees with this fact, even those philosophers who have made careers out of denying it – simply because this belief is vital to any kind of functioning in the real world. Think what would happen if you kept all your options equally open: you'd wake up in the morning, decide you wanted to get up and eat breakfast, but then you'd be completely lost. The kitchen would be the best place to get breakfast – but what if your roommates rearranged the house in the night. There's no reason to believe the kitchen's still there – if it's possible that it's not, it's just as likely, right? – so there'd be no reason to head in the direction you remember the kitchen being, rather than say, going to another bedroom – maybe the kitchen's there now. The reason we go to the kitchen and don't think about these other possibilities is because they're so unlikely that they don't merit being prepared for – we'd consider a person who constantly behaved in this way as stark raving mad. Clearly, in the matter of getting breakfast, the right way of thinking is to go to the kitchen.

Now, most of the breakfast-eating population of the world would concede this fact quite readily – but many contend that, even so, spiritual matters are beyond the scope of such reasoning. I have never been able to see why this should be so. My grade eleven English teacher once tried to tell me that science was like any other religion, reliant on faith for its legitimacy. This is true, but only a to a very limited degree, and certainly not in the way he meant. Science has one article of faith – that a multiplicity of consistent examples constitutes a pattern. Some (notably David Hume) have argued that this renders our knowledge meaningless, but I disagree for a number of reasons outside the scope of this entry. What I want to emphasise is that that article of scientific faith is the exact same one the enables us to go and get some breakfast – that past evidence tells us what is probable in the future, and that the rational person acts on this knowledge.

Science is (or at least, should be) the art of stripping away everything but that one assumption about induction and seeing what remains. There is an element of faith in trusting broad scientific opinion, of course – I don't test every theory I hear before I believe it – but even this is only a manifestation of the belief in the plausibility of induction, because the times I have tested scientific theories, they have not failed me. Of course, this isn't to say that all our current theories are correct: what it means is that given the knowledge available to mankind, it is rational to believe in evolution, and irrational not to. People in favour of teaching intelligent design on par with evolution are proponents of precisely the kind of irrational thinking described above – that possibility is enough to give one theory equal value to another.

In my opinion, knowledge is in essence the recognition of patterns, and it is because of this that I cannot believe in God, or spirituality in general: there has been nothing in my life, no pattern or other evidence, that suggests his existence. Now, I don't deny that the existence of an omnipotent God is possible – it is perfectly consistent with everything I've observed about the world, and, in fact, with every possible set of observations in every possible world. Moreover, I agree that absence of proof is not proof of absence. But Occam's Razor teaches us not to multiply entities beyond necessity – meaning that given that both the absence and the presence of a thing explain something equally well, we should favour the absence. We could believe that planes fly because great imperceptible birds carry them in their talons, but are beyond human observation – but it can be explained using air currents, and any proponent of the 'ornithological imperceptibility' theory of flight would hardly be listened to. There is no reason not to apply the same logic to the existence of God, beyond the purely sociological fact of billions' belief in him – but 'five billion people can't be wrong' does not qualify as hard science.

This is what distinguishes science from religion – it has its basis in probability, not desire. But we don't merely need to explain things like human evolution; we need to explain why it rained yesterday, or why our cars won't start, or why bad things happen to good people. Most importantly, we need these theories to help us in our planning for future events. However, if we put separate out parts of our lives and keep them from reason – the 'spiritual', and most dangerously, the moral – we cease to act on our thoughts and start to act more on our desires. Open-mindedness is important when it comes to culture, and when it comes to genuine mysteries, and questioning accepted wisdom is a vital part of science; but if we start to pretend that every option with even a modicum of possibility is equal, as favoured by the creationist movement, the very foundations of rational thinking will have been abandoned.
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