Wednesday, April 29, 2009

"Evidence and Belief"

Yesterday, I revealed my requirement for a meditation process disconnected from any religious or spiritual belief system. Since a lot of people hunger for a belief system they can surrender to, I thought it appropriate to explain my reasons for proceeding in the other direction.

Believing is tough for me. I never quite fit the mold.

BELIEVERS: We believe in an eight-sided thinking system.

EARL: I’m a seven-sided thinker.

BELIEVERS: Sorry. Can’t come in.

EARL: Seven’s pretty close.

BELIEVERS: Is it eight?


BELIEVERS: Can’t come in.

EARL: That doesn’t seem fair.

BELIEVERS: Adjust. Become an eight.

EARL: But I’m a seven.

BELIEVERS: Can’t come in.

So there’s that. I never get in. Not that I want to get in. I’d just like it to be my choice. But that’s not the biggest problem here. My real disenchantment derives from the fundamental concept of “belief” itself.

Two summers ago, I took an extension class at UCLA called, The History of the Conservative Movement. Since my views tend to skew in most cases, though definitely not all, in a more leftward direction, I was interested in learning about the origins of the political movement with which I generally disagree.

I read about Edmund Burke (1729-1797). A really smart English guy. (Actually a really smart Irish guy, who relocated to England). Burke advocated honoring the traditions of the past, because history – through its failures and its successes – could teach valuable lessons to the generations that came after.

Burke was not, however, against change. He understood that change was not only inevitable, but natural and desirable. What he opposed was rapid change. He wanted whatever changes were decided upon to be integrated gradually, so they wouldn’t be, as they turned out to be in, say, the French Revolution, anarchically disruptive.

From this I learned that conservatives today are not the same.

Okay, so we’re in, maybe, the eighth class of our twelve-week session. Somehow, in passing, our professor mentions that “The American Dream” – a precept dearly cherished by conservatives, grounded in the concept of inevitable upward mobility – had been scientifically demonstrated to no longer exist.

The professor asserted that recent studies had shown that, not always, but more often than not, and more often than in the past, people today remain in the same social and economic position as the earlier generations of their families.

Now, from Day One, there’d been this Libertarian pain in the ass who sat in the back, barking out his knee-jerk conservative “talking points” (without once ever raising his hand). When he heard “The American Dream” being challenged by accepted scientific data, this mulish irritant reflexively replied,

“Conservatives don’t believe that.”

Immediately, I thought (but neglected to say out loud), “Well, there you have it. That’s the whole ballgame right there.”

Scientific evidence, versus belief. Two opposing ways of reaching a conclusion. As compatible as apples and doorknobs.

I’m an “evidence” guy. If you want to convince me of something, you better be packing some reliably verifiable facts. When I hear what sound like reliably verifiable facts casually dismissed by “Conservative don’t believe that”, I get unhappy.

Make that angry.

Why angry? The dismissive attitude doesn’t knock me out. And I’m not thrilled with the condescension. The word “supercilious” happily jumps to my mind. Why “happily”? Because in High School English, we studied a book called, Words Are Important, which, every week, presented us with twenty valuable but little-used words, and one week, “supercilious” was one of them, and I never get to use it, and I’m happily grateful to be using it today. The guy was definitely supercilious.

Dismissive. Supercilious. These are things “evidence” people have to put up with from the ever-confident “belief” crowd. Now, do “believers” catch unjustified heck from the “evidence” cohort? You’re dern tootin’.

“Bring us your evidence that God exists, you softheaded promoters of invisible nonentities! And while you’re at it, let’s see your proof for Santa and the Easter bunny as well!”

Ever since science started discovering stuff, I have been an enthusiastic supporter (though not actually present at the time) of the view that it was not appropriate for science to be evaluated by the principles of religion, or any other non-evidentiary belief system. However, I am an equally enthusiastic supporter (and far more present) of not evaluating religion or any other non-evidentiary belief system by scientific principles. Come on, now. Fair is fair.

What we seem to have are two procedurally different processes for arriving at the truth. Are they then equal? Ehhh, not quite.

And here’s where the rubber hits the road. (Whatever that means.)

I am not aware of “believers” being burned at the stake by scientists. The opponents of belief may carp. They may criticize. They may sneeringly deride. They may ridicule mercilessly and haughtily “pooh-pooh.”

But they don’t kill you.

That’s the difference.

I think it’s a big one.

Taking it to the personal level (and it always comes down to personal level)….

Not infrequently, over the past two thousand years, belief held by the majority, beliefs dismissing, ignoring and over-riding demonstrable evidence, have delivered, to put it mildly, really bad times for a group of hard-lucks known as the Jews, a team on which, by birth, I happen to be a player. Beneath all the blah-blah, this is the reason I feel, not just an intellectual challenge, but a personal threat in the words,

“Conservatives don’t believe that.”

Throughout history, many conservative belief-generated impressions have left the People of the Six-Pointed Star – among other minorities – in dire and dreadful jeopardy for their lives.

When functioning in the “non-faith” departments, the world is far better off with evidence.


A. Buck Short said...

Wow. Do not pass go. Do not transition through cable. Go directly from commercial broadcast to PBS – brought to us by readers like us. We put the coffee on, expecting to pull up, at best, Joe Mankiewicz, and get Joe Campbell. Three more posts and you’ve got enough for an online course, Pomerantz’s Meditations at the University of Phoenix. Or at least a super-syllabus for one. Tomorrow: No, the Scottish Enlightenment is not another name for Drambuie. We colonials out here in LoneStarIntelligentDesignWorld appreciate Mr. Burke, not only for the thinking, but for the sympathy. (Incidentally, wouldn’t just Phoenix University have been slightly less supercilious? Oh wait, that gets back to the post on reframing the question, doesn’t it?) As a fellow Canadian used to say -- in character -- "Discuss."

MikeThe Blogger said...

WORDS ARE IMPORTANT - I also remember that English course book. What I remember most was the "important" lessons it taught us and how to correct sentences like: .... "Why did you bring that book that I did not want to be read to out of up for?" ...Yes, I can remember that sentence 50 years later. I still don't know how to correct it, or even if it needs correcting. But I guess I learned something.

Good post on "belief" vs. "evidence". You are right on.

Bilge said...

I believe your post was quite scientific. And what would be the standard for verifying personal revelation? Just asking.

Jub Jub The Frumious Bandersnatch said...

Stalin & Mao were non-believers. They racked up pretty impressive tallies.

(Libertarians and conservatives are not the same. You could start a bar fight with that sort of thing.)

JED said...

I'm an engineer with a degree in electrical engineering but I also have a degree in biology. I "prove" things every day but I still believe in God (and in my case, his son Jesus). Being skeptical is good in any field but demanding absolute proof of everything is going to leave you deeply disappointed. When you (or maybe a physicist you know) can tell me the position AND the momentum of a particle at the same time, I'll be impressed. When someone can "prove" how much I love my wife and my God, I'll be even more impressed.

By the way, the people who destroy in the name of religion are just wrong. The Jews killed the early Christians and later the Christians killed the Jews. The true Jews and Christians didn't. Only the ones who were looking for excuses to be evil.