Monday, December 17, 2007

Explanations: The difference between belief and evidence

(Update: Greg Laden pointed out in an email that the term "special knowledge" which I use extensively here, is similar to the term "received knowledge" in the social sciences)

I am occasionally asked what I think about the whole “Creationism” issue. Considering the typically caustic nature of this issue, I have often wrestled with how to approach it. Here’s what I try to say:

Imagine a painting of a man. Let’s just assume the man is older, say, in his 50s. You can tell he is in his 50s by the color of his hair and the wrinkles on his face (EDIT: I'm being told men in their 50s don't have wrinkles..sorry!). The man is wearing a certain set of clothes, which may also indicate his age or his profession or his socio-economic status. By examining the painting carefully, you can construct a plausible understanding about the man’s life.

Of course, all of those clues were put there by an artist who wanted to cultivate a certain perception within your mind about the man in the painting. The painting itself may not be 50 years old, it may be 10 or 500 years old.

Now imagine, instead of a painting, you were looking at a humanoid robot. The robot looks and talks and moves like a man. There is no visible clue that this robot is anything but a perfectly ordinary man. Even a detailed medical examination would reveal nothing that indicates the robot is not a human. In fact, all of the possible evidence indicates that the robot is human. Only those with a special knowledge realize the robot is not human. No one can independently verify that knowledge, because all the evidence indicates the robot is human. That special knowledge must have been given by either the creator of the robot, or one who was present when the robot was created.

The Bible is special knowledge, as are all other religious texts. Those texts purport to be written by an agent of the creator, who was present when the universe was created. If you have faith in the source of such special knowledge, then you need no evidence to support that belief. Simply put: independent verification is irrelevant to special knowledge.

Science, on the other hand, is constructed solely from evidence. That evidence must be of a form that anyone could reproduce. In a philosophical sense, this severely limits the scope of science. Science is based on some assumptions, but the primary assumption is that an objective reality exists. No such assumptions are necessary to believe in special knowledge.

The frequent and misguided attacks on science by believers in special knowledge seem to assume that science ought to support special knowledge. This simply isn’t the case. Science may support that special knowledge, or it may not, but the only requirement of science is that all the evidence be independently verifiable.

Now, interestingly enough, this does not necessarily mean the results of science are correct. To go back to the example of the robot: Even if all the evidence points to the robot being a human, that doesn’t make it so. Similarly, even though all the evidence points to a billions-year-old universe, evolutionarily-derived biodiversity, and mankind descending from apes, that doesn’t preclude the possibility that some omni-potent agent created the universe…but that omni-potent agent must have made the universe look like it works this way.

Based upon this understanding, I do not believe a person is an idiot just because they have a literal belief in a creation story. On the other hand, saying that the evidence supports such a belief indicates idiocy or ignorance. Any individual can believe anything they want to believe, but that doesn’t change the fact that science must be based on independently verified evidence. If that independent verification isn’t available, then it isn’t science, and therefore it shouldn’t be in a science class.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I see no difference between the words 'assumption' and a 'belief'; they are interchangeable words; this makes for a cleaner view of the world than differentiating the two. On the other hand, the word 'ineffable' describes 'special knowledge'. The word 'faith' is the 'suspension of disbelief'. I would rather seek than assume; I would deal with reality as directly as possible than live in a fantasy. What can one say about living in a fantasy?