There is an infinite number of things in the world that one could choose to believe in. One could choose to believe in pyramid power, the predictions of Nostradamus, magnetic therapy, the healing touch, ESP, ghosts, Atlantis, the Bermuda Triangle, Bigfoot, reincarnation, biorhythms, astrology, the Biblical Flood, etc., etc., etc. These are not mutually supportive notions so there is no reason to suppose that magnetic therapy would work if the predictions of Nostradamus had some basis in fact, or that if magnetic therapy worked it would be likely that reincarnation was a fact. And this means that the list is a vast smorgasbord of ideas that have no consistency—a trap for the ignorant and uncritical. Welcome to the “new age” bookstore. Hardly anyone (except, perhaps, Shirley MacLean) would think that they must all be valid. Most reasonable people would think that very few of them might be, if any. What should one believe in?
It seems clear that we should believe only the things that have persuasive evidence to support them. But the curious fact is that people all over the world believe most strongly in the things for which there is the least evidence. Devout Hindus believe in Hinduism, and devout Muslims believe in Islam, devout Jews believe in Judaism . . . and religions are only a part of the belief systems that people carry with them, cultural baggage of value only to those who possess it. All of this stuff is taken on faith, but what makes it so deep and pervasive is the fact that people grow up with it. It becomes so deeply enmeshed in their lives that they would never think of questioning it. “Growing up” in a tradition is a kind of “brain-washing.” (The Jesuits are said to have created the saying, “give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.”)
It is surely a fact that the person born in Kansas who is an ardent Christian would be an ardent Muslim if he or she had been born and raised in a Muslim family in Saudi Arabia, or an ardent Jew if born and raised in a Jewish family in Israel. One’s faith, then, can be regarded as an accident of birth, nothing as obvious as skin color or the shape of one’s eyes, but something that is almost the result of chance. With our religions we also drink up our valuation of other peoples, our view of what is the right way to live, our sense of what is beautiful or ugly, and our ideas of right and wrong, both locally and globally. These are the ideas that mark us out into tribes, and tribalism is the cause of many of the world’s ills.
If the things that are a part of ourselves by long acculturation are to be evaluated, where do we go for evidence? We feel their value so strongly that we might almost say that we know that they are true . . . and many people do. The simplest way to critique them is to look at a contrasting source of information that—unfortunately—lacks all of their simplistic, mythic appeal: that is, to look at science. (It is not a belief-system but an inquiry based always on facts!)
The facts of science have the same kind of certainty as the most certain facts of our everyday existence. People everywhere don’t “know” (with all of the emotion that implies) that the sun will “rise” tomorrow, but they have a “practical certainty” that it will. Like our cultural baggage, this kind of practical certainty is the result of repeated daily experience, but unlike the cultural baggage, it is experience of a physical fact, not an evaluation, opinion, tradition, or what have you. As such it is a “certainty” for people all over the world. Our knowledge of electricity originates in our experience with the static that makes our hair unmanageable, and in our observations of lightning, but it grows to include the behavior of chemicals reacting together, and the behavior of gasses, and finally—added to information from other observations—it allows us to understand the structure of matter itself. At this point we are seeing the world scientifically (and there isn’t “American Science,” and “Indian Science,” and “Japanese Science). At every step, we are dealing with phenomena that are predictable once we understand them, often with phenomena that we can reproduce in controlled conditions. Nothing is taken on faith. Everything must be confirmable, and the materials and concepts with which we work extend right down to our kitchens and our job sites.
When you turn on a television set, you expect it to work, and if it does not, you do not pray over it or call in a shaman. You know that its functioning—however mysterious it may be to you—is the result of understandable processes, and that there are people who possess the necessary understanding to make it work. This understanding is a direct result of our knowledge of the structure of matter/energy—and what we know about semiconductor circuits is not unrelated to what we know about the functioning of the cells of the human body. Science (excluding the social sciences) isn’t a collection of loosely related specialties, but a vast interconnected network of knowledge that is consistent and verifiable throughout its extent.
This means that you can’t pick and choose among the established facts of science simply because you don’t like the implications of this or that. In fact, your expectation that your television set will work is an implicit acknowledgment of the validity—of the power—of science, itself. It is your confirmation of a subterranean belief in science that is upheld in the experience of millions of people, millions of times every day as they make use of the science “bottled” in their automobiles and television sets, and in X-rays and MRIs. That expectation is, itself, a mute hosannah.
Furthermore, we are not entitled to use our “commonsense” notions to critique science, for science has gone far beyond them—through them—and we don’t know enough unless we are specialists. So, we should accept the consensus of scientific opinion on any scientific issue, and we should be skeptical of scientific notions that the majority of mainstream scientists with the appropriate backgrounds are skeptical of.
I said that nothing in science is taken on faith. I should add that scientists do make assumptions, but they are the assumptions that make daily life possible. Scientists assume that we are not living in a plastic, dream-world that shifts and changes. What is true of electricity today will be true of it tomorrow, and what is true of electricity in Schenectady will be true of it in Bombay. These are asumptions, but they are also “practical certainties.”
Our cultural baggage is never tested the way that the ideas of science are. We just defend it as an extension of ourselves when we think it is being attacked. If we are ever to free ourselves from this destructive tribalism, we need to ask that we be given evidence that is not anecdotal, not traditional—but visible and verifiable in the world of fact. None of the items in the list we began with can pass this test. Ambrose Bierce got it exactly right when he said that faith is: “belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge of things without parallel.”
Note We often hear that students should be given contrasting views on evolution, climate change, etc. That they should be able to debate them and decide for themselves which ideas to believe. This is nonsensical because the students don’t have the deep background-knowledge of the necessary subjects, or the grasp of the details (biological, chemical, statistical, etc.) necessary to meaningfully debate them. In other words, they aren’t experts, and it is surprising that anyone would think that students, people who are without expertise by definition, would be able to do so. It is a kind of verbal slight of hand, a con.