Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Belief and Theory: Exact Parallels to Religion and Science (2)

How can you believe in God and not believe in vampires?” – Tom Nelson, Intertel ‘Port of Call’, ‘Science and Religion’, June/July 2014, p. 1

Though written in a facetious vein, Nelson’s question has more than a little bit of ballast. If you are going to believe in an “infinite” personal entity for which there isn’t a scintilla of evidence, then you are going to have problems if you deny belief in possible vampires – because at the end of the day both fall under the same supernaturalist meme.

Nelson’s next point also bears careful consideration:

Theory and belief are not in competition. They can and usually do abide side by side in the same minds, each in its own compartment. There is no gain on either side of the controversy in contending between theory and belief. It doesn’t matter what truth is, only what works and what doesn’t. In human psychology, belief has its place, theories serve their purposes.”

 But this needs careful parsing, and I wouldn’t be so bold to adopt it as a generalization. True, theory and belief  can both plausibly occupy some small subset of minds – namely scientists who are also ardent religionists, i.e. believers. A case in point I can cite was my thesis supervisor- who while excellent in solar physics (publishing a number of papers on solar radio emissions) nonetheless believed the creation account of the bible. How did he manage to do sterling research on the one hand yet retain a decidedly unscientific view on the other? I warrant he managed to compartmentalize his ‘theory’ and ‘belief’ sides.

Indeed, Nelson on the next page of his essay provides one very compelling reason:

The purpose of belief is a certain psychological comfort, a means of coping with the fears and awareness that only human beings possess. We are the only species of animal that knows it is inevitably going to die.”

He then goes on to add that “consistent with this Christians believe humans have souls:”

 The “soul” being the vehicle to ensure post-death survival in some form.

 The takeaway here is that adoption of a religion is more a psychological choice than anything else. The “search” for a religion that “fits” may then be said to be an extension or extrapolation of that psychological template. In the end, just as “exorcism” was invented to parry the belief in devils (not devils per se), so religion was invented to consolidate overtones of comfort – via specific beliefs – as related to human life.

 Returning to the original claim, it is simply not true to say that belief and theory abide co-extensively in ALL minds. For example, I can’t say I have any “beliefs” – which means accepting something as true minus any evidence for it. I do have loads of theories, but as we know the standard and most accepted definition of theory is of a hypothesis for which the initial predictions have already been confirmed. In other words, evidence has been used which contradicts Nelson’s definition of belief.

Nelson reinforces this distinction in his next passage:

The believer relies on what he calls ‘faith’ to sustain belief. Any questioning of the religious precepts will be met by the believer’s claim to ‘faith’ as the force behind his convictions. And what is faith? It is only the belief itself, the belief in believing….”

 Again, disclosing belief to be a psychological mode, likely retained by evolution in the OAA (orientation association area)  brain centers,  to provide existential comfort to orphaned minds. By extension, taking Nelson’s concepts to their limit, it matters not what belief mode or religion one professes. They are all relative since all are formed of this psychological dynamic. (Of course, the belief systems themselves don’t see it that way, each proclaiming itself the sole font of truth – even inventing ‘everlasting’ punishments for those that deny their validity.)

Again, revealing his dichotomy of mind, perhaps contradiction, Nelson writes:

“So we arrive at the great definitional divide. Science deals with nature, always testing to determine how close to unknowable nature is becoming. Belief deals with the human mind, allaying the distractions of fear and uncertainty and the dismay of living in a universe so frightfully complicated, while being aware of its complication, and more painfully aware that while we see the complication we cannot fully understand it.”

 Parts of the above make sense, but other parts do not. Granted that belief plays a role in allaying fears and uncertainties of existence – but does the mind so involved truly perceive the universe is that complicated to be “frightful”? I would argue that the converse is true and the minds of most humans don’t see the universe as complicated enough!  For this reason, they tend to treat it like a little play toy of their own minds. Hence, the absurd conception of a cosmos that’s six thousand years old and which admits of no Big Bang and no evolution either.

 This kindergarten version of the cosmos is accepted by way too many Americans and itself becomes part of their comfort-belief system. By allowing their primitive minds to wallow in uncritical belief they actually mentally perform a reductio ad absurdum to placate their existential fears.

Nelson’s next paragraph is also interesting:

As science exploits nature, religion exploits mankind. The psychological need to believe and to alleviate the uncomfortable psychology of uncertainty and mortality is ever an opportunity for the charlatan. There is always someone to sell you what you think you need whether he can deliver it or not.”

And, of course, “salvation” sits at the top of what most religions promise to deliver…if only you will be a good little Do-be and follow their code to the letter. Never mind you’re selling out your own will and autonomy to tilt at supernatural windmills.

 Nelson, thankfully, ends by linking religion and its beliefs to superstition. He also offers a sound warning that “if prosperity and the illusion of security it brings fails, superstition will rebound.”  Which in fact we’ve seen through history and as he observes “war, famine, plague, upheaval are the allies of superstition.”

 Adding that superstition is the last refuge of the vanquished as they “cling doggedly to it as the only escape from a reality they can no longer bear.”

 Which is precisely why we need ever more science and its “positive results” – and I’d also add, some way science can help salvage those brains addicted to superstition!

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