On Belief

Speaking as someone who used to be a ‘person of faith,’ those who claim to eschew religious beliefs can seem rather strange creatures. Perhaps this is because when skeptics of various stripes claim to hold no religious belief their claim is truncated into an assertion of no belief whatsoever. This would, of course, be preposterous. Everyone—even the most scrupulous skeptic—has “confidence in the truth or existence of something not immediately susceptible to rigorous proof.” I do not propose that empirical atheists or philosophical materialists have faith in the tenants of their worldview akin to the faith a devout Christian has in their scriptures or savior. Instead, I am playing with the word “proof” which may be based on personal experience or of an educational nature.  Someone, somewhere has rigorously proven the theory of gravitation to the satisfaction of most of the general public, but I have not, principally because I am incapable of doing so. The theory of gravitation is not immediately susceptible to my rigorous investigation, and so I must ‘believe’ in gravity.

We take for granted concepts like gravity, friction, and electricity, even though we have not worked through the equations ourselves, because at some point we were educated about these things and accepted them almost unquestioningly. We collectively believe the education we receive functions to accurately inform us. We have confidence that the facts, information, and skills passed down from experts and repackaged for common consumption provide an adequate picture of the world in which we live. For me, this confidence extends to theories established by science. I accept that evolution, Big Bang Theory, and quantum mechanics represent the best understanding of the universe currently available. I do not “have faith” in evolution or strings; I have confidence in the the scientific method—the process that brought these concepts to light.

The word “theory” is often misunderstood, so I want to take a moment to define it. In science “theory” refers to well-founded explanations of observable occurrences, based on a large bodies of knowledge repeatedly confirmed through experiment. Most people can’t personally absorb the bodies of knowledge, observe the experiments involved, or comprehend the relevant data which composes scientific theories, and thus rely on the rigors of the scientific method to bare out the truth. This reliance is rewarded every time a theory wrought by the scientific method proves itself through its predictive power and functionality. We buy cars based on crash-test safety ratings; we fly in airplanes–confident they won’t fall from the sky; we try new diets, exercise, and make plans based on weather reports. All these acts are expressions of our societal confidence in the scientific method.

Portrait of Galileo Galilei by Justus Susterma...

Portrait of Galileo Galilei by Justus Sustermans painted in 1636. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Scientific method” refers to “a body of techniques for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, [and] correcting and integrating previous knowledge.” The last point is supremely important. Science self-adjusts. When old ideas are jettisoned, when we discover that we were wrong about the cause of a disease or the health of a diet, this is evidence that the scientific method is working. With each course correction comes further confirmation that the truth, over time, can and will be sussed out as long as we continue to pursue it rigorously. This means we subject old ideas to new tools and methods. We evaluate our evidence again and again, refining our ideas as we go. We continually acknowledge the apparent truths according to the information we have, utilize those truths, and leave ourselves open to the notion that our information may change.

Because science is dynamic by nature, I find it irresponsible to accept everything I hear attached to claims of scientific research. The information I consume today is likely to disseminated through conversation or on my social media profile, so I try to access the best information possible (or at least acknowledge the debate when I haven’t bothered to verify). I do this by observing the guidelines of good research: preferencing peer review journals and their websites over casual news sites and blogs, appealing to primary sources whenever possible, and reading with an eye for bias or agenda which could be damaging to the credibility of my information source. I also examine the in-field debate surrounding an issue, recognizing that some ideas are still in great dispute and others are largely settled within the most reputable sectors of the scientific community.

By the time I have done the work of reviewing the evidence, evaluating my sources, and surveying the debate, my confidence in an idea can hardly be called “belief” at all. My acceptance of modern scientific theories is not a faith position derived from unconditional submission to an authority. I use empirical evidence and the tools of my education to evaluate claims about reality. I do not need to “believe” in scientific theories because I trust the scientific method. Like science, I adjust my views according to my own observations, and the observations of those whose expertise I’ve been given reason to trust. No one can independently prove the value of every idea they embrace, but as a skeptic I do my best to embrace the ideas which have proven themselves to work. This is not faith, it is pragmatism.

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