I Believe

In Life by Brian Koberlein25 Comments

What do you believe? Do you believe in fate? In love? In God? Do you believe in evolution? Global warming? The big bang? 

Our beliefs — those things we hold to be true — are a central part of what defines us. They shape our lives in ways seen and unseen. They form a foundation for our ethics, values, and even our political views.

There is a popular idea among scientists that belief is not a part of science. One does not believe in evolution, one understands evolution, as if the mere comprehension of natural selection ensures one’s acceptance of evolution. If you don’t believe in evolution, you simply don’t understand it. But that’s nonsense. One can understand a concept without accepting its validity, and people can and do choose not to believe in evolution. People believe in creationism. People believe the Earth is flat. They believe there is a divine creator, or that there is no god. Those beliefs are a part of their identity, and we cannot simply declare their beliefs to be invalid. The central freedom anyone has is a freedom of thought.

The reluctance to speak of belief in science stems, I think in part, from the fact that that it is often used by trolls and the like to paint science as a religion. If scientists believe in evolution then it is no different than a belief in the Holy Trinity or the Great Pumpkin, and can be dismissed as mere dogma. In this view all beliefs are statements of faith, made piously in the absence of evidence. Blessed are they that have not seen and yet believe, as Christ admonishes doubting Thomas. Thus, changing one’s belief is a sign of weakness. It demonstrates a tragic loss of faith.

But there are central beliefs (tenets if you prefer) of scientific adherents. A belief that the cosmos has (at least in part) an objective reality, and that humans have the ability to understand that reality, though incomplete it may be. A belief that, despite its many flaws, the scientific method of observation and experimentation allows us to build a confluence of evidence that brings to light an emergent truth. These are not controversial beliefs, and they are held by scientists all over the world, whether they be atheist or devout, and regardless of their political persuasion. Thus, evolution, global warming, and black holes are a part of that emergent truth. Like most scientists I believe them to be true, but it is a conditional belief, supported by the scientific evidence we currently have.

With the recent March on Science this weekend, there has been a great deal of discussion about science and politics. Is science inherently political? Should it be? Or should it strive to be neutral? Individually, scientists can be politically active, and many loudly proclaim their views. As debates over the science march and related issues have demonstrated, even scientists don’t agree on their politics. But one thing they do agree upon is that the cosmos has an objective reality, and humanity is best served when we listen to what that reality teaches us. To my mind, our political discussions should start with those lessons. We should start with a recognition of the scientific evidence we currently have. If we hold that to be common ground, our political debates will still be fierce, but they will lead to the betterment of us all.

At least that is what I believe.

Comments

  1. Has there ever been a time in history where the pursuit of science did not exist at the pleasure of its benefactors? I can’t think of one. In today’s world, most science is funded with public money, and because of that there will always be a political element. It’s inescapable. Best, I think to recognize this, understand it, and adapt as necessary.

  2. Having freedom to believe something doesn’t automatically make it valid. If I show you a red pen, you can believe that it’s blue but that doesn’t make your belief valid because it’s not blue.

  3. I would also separate scientific theory from the practice of science. Choosing a particular theory to explain something that isn’t conclusive may well be a matter of belief, but the practice of identifying which theory holds water is anything but, it’s the application of theories to observation, belief is the other way around.

  4. Exceptional.

    One small point – religion and science do have one thing in common as thought-systems. There are both tiered. There is a small group that holds “the real truth” that is to be blindly followed by the lowly everyman. The regular people are not permitted to question, doubt, reject ideas they don’t understand by the equally ignorant faithful. The mass of teachers and populizers in both regards only poorly understand the facts and systems of logic and even flagrantly misrepresent their chosen dogma for their own personal gain in money or influence.

    Evolution and Climate Change in particular. Evolution is frequently pitted against religion by popular leaders on both sides, yet anyone who has studied both to any degree at all quickly comes to understand that there is no conflict between the two. Climate change is an area that is widely studied yet those who participate in that study are quick to admit of how little is still known and how much more is not yet fully understood. Cutting edge science in both areas has been undergoing drastic upheaval of long held beliefs, yet even so, not in such ways to undermine the question of “is it real”.

    Have these been politicized? Without question. Every story published that aggregates believers and disbelievers into demographic groups, ignoring the huge minorities that blur those lines creates a schism between us. Only 67% of Democrats believe in evolution (43% of Republicans). Yet one would think from news reports that the division is far more along party lines than it actually is and that the minority of people who do not believe in evolution is far far smaller.

    Lastly regarding “We should start with a recognition of the scientific evidence we currently have”
    It’s important to recognize that “We” don’t have ANY scientific evidence. What is have is opinion that are trusted by some and not by others. Just as Catholic scientists centuries ago allowed their religious beliefs to influence their interpretations of their observations, it is presumed now that casting aside religious beliefs creates a blank slate in the scientist’s mind, from which they can objectively discern what is going on. But objectivity is not so easily attained. When culture and politics and money influence the influencers, knowledge is tainted. When those seeking truth find results that don’t jive with other observations, they second guess themselves and decline to publish for fear of ridicule or presumption an error was made. When companies and university heads and politicians expect results to conform to their product or platform this applies tremendous economic and professional pressure to deliver results consistent with the desired outcome.

    The bottom line is that there does exist legitimate dissenting opinion, but it’s rarely heard at all and even less frequently taken seriously based on nothing more than that it doesn’t conform to prescribed opinion.

  5. well – interesting article – but I take some issue with “Those beliefs are a part of their identity, and we cannot simply declare their beliefs to be invalid. The central freedom anyone has is a freedom of thought.” I can absolutely declare someone’s believe to be invalid without jeopardizing their ‘freedom of thought”. Someone can ‘believe’ the earth to be only 6000 years old – but that would be invalid – and I’m comfortable saying that.

    Also “If scientists believe in evolution then it is no different than a belief in the Holy Trinity or the Great Pumpkin, and can be dismissed as mere dogma. In this view all beliefs are statements of faith, made piously in the absence of evidence.” is simply not true. A belief in fact is NOT a statement of faith – a tired argument by many christian apologists.

    Facts are facts regardless of whether anyone believes in them or not.

    1. Gary, you’re taking the approach that facts are intrinsically indisputable, but this is not the case. All facts are not created equal – some things that are called facts are actually opinion, evolution and climate change being such cases. Those who study these fields witness evidences with their own eyes and understand the context those things happen in, but everyone else is relegated to simply taking their word for it. This is no different whatsoever from the spiritualist who wholeheartedly believes she witnessed a spiritual event and relays her experience to others who then choose to believe of disbelieve the story. The only grounds upon which you are able to make a claim is that it’s “obvious” that the spiritist is lying or mistaken because no such things exist — in other words, your conclusion is predicated by your belief.

      In order to have a truly open mind (not that anyone is required to), one must accept that all statements carry equal weight – that of the spiritualist, that of the climate change supporting data and that of the scientist who experimentally shows data that contradicts climate change.

      Scientists today make the dogmatic mistakes that religionists have made throughout the centuries – rejecting anything one disagrees with as heresy, as inaccurate, as wrong, bad, not fact. Not on a basis of logic but on a basis of belief. Instead of starting with the information provided by the spiritual person or the climate change denier, the argument against it is a feathery statement of rejection based upon the fact that it doesn’t conform to standard accepted thinking. It’s “case closed” before the discussion even begins.

      1. You may be able to stretch your argument into the climate change because deep down it is not a “real” scientific theory in the sense that we don’t have a control group and we cannot change the parameters AND there is only ONE sample. But still, we can make up for that with computer models that do predict and closely simulate what we have data for (i.e. the data we gathered during the decades of intensive study of climate/atmosphere/etc.) plus methods of analysing the data we have to make sure we are looking at a causal relationship and not just a correlation.

        However, for evolution (and quantum physics and relativity, etc.), there are so much evidence and so many controlled experiments that validate the theory, that considering it (for the moment – this is the KEY in science. Every theory is good until it is not! and then another takes over) to be anything but the real thing is intellectually dishonest. BUT yes, if we encounter a sample, a test, and in general evidence that defies the accepted theory, then we will change it accordingly. Note that theory of evolution is not quite the same as it was proposed by Darwin. However, the general mechanics of natural selection does seem to prevail the myriad of tests we throw at it.

        As a person, I can make all sorts of claims and believe all sorts of stuff, within my rights and freedom of thought, but if I don’t have evidence to back my claims, and the evidence that I have is purely subjective (i.e. you can’t test them yourself) then it is really hard for you to accept my claims as “truth” or “facts”. In science, the claim is followed by evidence that supports it. Sometimes the evidence is strong (i.e. anyone looking at it will make the same conclusion using proper logical steps, experiments done by others reproduce the results and so on) and sometimes it is not. That is why many science “headlines” that go viral, are relatively short lived because someone else in another lab who tries to replicate the test will not find the same results or some expert notices a flaw in the researcher’s logic or method of experiment. These do happen on a daily basis.

  6. The problem with the article is that it’s making a philosophical issue about the use of the work “believe”. Actually the real problem is that “believe” is used incorrectly to signal the acceptance of the scientific theory. People should not say they believe in evolution, when they actually mean they accept evolution. For most people there is nothing to believe about evolution, since it is just of fact of life on Earth that they accept, yet they still use the word “believe” by mistake.
    It would not be an issue to say “I believe in evolution” if there weren’t people who wanted to twist your words and then accuse you of turning science into the subject of belief.

  7. Usarian, you’re making the mistake of treating scientific theories as if they’re some sort of half-state of truth. They’re not, they’re a tool to test a hypothesis (which would be the equivalent of a “proposed truth”). That’s the problem, people keep using an overly loose (and non-scientific) definition of the term theory.

    1. Not at all – if you’ll note in my responses, it’s not those who themselves directly witness evidence and discern from that evidence an idea who are at issue. Anyone not personally directly involved with finding information (and are already trained to understand it) are stuck with taking somebody else’s word for it. I am not saying theories are half truths, I’m saying that non-scientists have the same relationship with those theories that they have with religious doctrine — they only know what they’re told and they have to trust those doing the telling… in other words, they have to believe what they’re told.

      Keep in mind, 99.9% of people who are being told about any science theory is getting that information condensed, abbreviated, reworded, dramaticized, and from people who misunderstood it when they heard it relayed to them (from people who ALSO had a canned version, and so on). Most people’s knowledge of evolution extends no further than the word itself and the idea of animals morphing into other animals. They’ll throw in the phrase “over millions of years” automatically without actual thought involved. This is why no one balks when evolution is anthropomorphized – not just in fiction but in the classroom.

      Theories are not in themselves in a half state of truth. But to any average person, their understanding of any given theory is more than half untrue and their acceptance of it is not based in knowledge at all but blind faith.

  8. As Stephen J. Gould wrote, religion and science are Non Overlapping Magisteria. I believe it.

    1. Marco – Well, it turns out that Mr. Gould is mistaken. IF there is a creator, THEN his creation will be inextricably linked to his nature.

      An honest scientific study of the universe using THE TOOLS OF SCIENCE, would then, in some way, reveal more about the creator. Likewise, an honest pursuit of the creator, using THE TOOLS OF THEOLOGY, would then, in some way, enhance your ability to understand the physical universe (when you’re using the tools of science.)

      To say that they are mutually exclusive denies the nature of each. Confusion always results when scientists attempt to make authoritative proclamations about the nature of a creator, and theologians, using their tools attempt to declare the nature of the physical universe. When the two viewpoints are exercised in cooperation, the result is a deeper, richer understanding of both.

  9. Those who deny science are stupid and deluded. Those who deny God are clever and deluded, which is worse.

    1. Fun fact: ancient Romans didn’t have a punishment for sacrilege. They believed their gods were powerful enough to stand for themselves. Either your God is so insecure it needs you to defend Him, or you don’t believe in Him enough.

  10. Hearing, reading, etc. is the first step. The second is intellectual assimilation, understanding. These two apply to the “ten thousand things” of Zen and Taoism, the infinitude of things “out there” that can be objects to the subject, knowledge to the knower. These are indirect, dependent on intermediaries such as the senses, thought, memory, etc.

    A reified concept of the knower can be known or experienced; the knower itself cannot be known or experienced. One is aware of it directly, prior to the senses, thought, memory, etc. This direct awareness can be “investigated” by itself, is not a matter of belief, and is entirely inaccessible amongst the “ten thousand things”.

  11. That’s not true in the slightest. Anyone can make the same observations and perform the same experiments, all they need is the time and inclination to do it. Scientists aren’t some gilded elite who have special access to the universe, and perpetuating that stereotype only serves to alienate more people from the pursuit of science.

    1. >Geniality

      You are saying that my statement “it’s not those who themselves directly witness evidence and discern from that evidence an idea who are at issue” is not even a little bit true because “Anyone can make the same observations and perform the same experiments”

      Your claim lacks logic. The fact that it is (in theory) possible for “anyone” to come to any and all scientific conclusions, does not contradict the fact that they don’t.

      If I tell you I have seen a flower that you have never seen or heard of before and I tell you that the flower I saw was blue — is it a fact that this flower is blue? All you have to go by is the fact that I claimed it exists and I claimed it is blue. If other people go see it and come back agreeing with me, is it now established as a fact? Yet still, you have only heard the witness of several, but have not seen it for yourself. If many more go visit the flower, only now several splinter groups have formed. Some say it is not blue at all, but grey or green. Some say it is not a unique flower, but something that already exists and is well known, but has been subjected to a disease or damage. The majority claim it is blue, but there are diverse small minorities claiming these other things. Which is the fact?

      Obviously, you are faced with a choice. You can choose to believe those who say it is blue, or those who say it is grey, or those who say it’s another flower. You can choose to avoid the subject entirely and simply say you don’t care either way. You may even choose an empty slate – as far as you’re concerned the thing doesn’t even exist because you yourself has never laid eyes on it and don’t care for the bother of it.

      Scientists *are* a gilded elite. By their own making, they set up themselves, collectively, as “those who must be obeyed”. If a majority of scientists claim evolution exists, then you must accept it or face ridicule. You may not educate your child in any other way, so says the State that has subscribed to that belief. A subgroup majority of scientists have agreed that climate change is real and caused by humans. There is a large vocal minority of scientists who disagree on various levels. There is professional and cultural punishment inflicted upon any of these who speak their opinion or publish contradictory evidence for peer review, thus making the minority artificially appear smaller than it truly is.

      Scientists have taken the role the was once held by priests in the ancient religions. They hold all the answers, they cannot be questioned, and there are relatively harsh consequences for heretics and skeptics rather than open minded dialog. In our age you may worship any god you wish, but don’t you dare question scientific dogma, you must believe all you are taught – or else.

      Surely it is clearly evident to all, including yourself, that this is the current state of things.

      1. Author

        What absolute nonsense. The fact that you can comment here and elsewhere on the internet clearly shows scientists absolutely can be questioned. They are questioned all the time, and ridiculed, and accused of being high priests, or part of a conspiracy to promote liberal politics. You name it. As a scientist I can’t even say the Earth is round without people hounding me and shouting that I’m wrong.

        Parents can also teach their children whatever they wish. Zeus is the god of heaven, the Earth is flat. Global Warming is a liberal conspiracy. They can and do. What isn’t legal (at least in the US) is the teaching of religious doctrine such as creationism in publicly funded schools. Despite this fact, it still happens. I myself was taught young-earth creationism in a public school, with the full approval of the community, despite it being illegal.

        I live in a country where my President declares climate change to be pseudoscience. Your claim that scientists are a gilded elite is simply delusional.

  12. Everyone here should understand that “theory” has a different meaning in science than in every-day vernacular. What common tongue calls “theory” is actually (in scientific terms) more or less a “hypothesis” or “postulation” and sometimes just plain philosophical belief. But in science “theory” has a more stringent definition, it’s a hypothesis that has been rigorously tested to near-fact. I write “near-fact” to be clear that many theories in science must often adapt to new evidence. That it changes and is testable and others may question it is the STRENGTH of science, not a weakness.

    Climate change has elements of theory (there are many proven aspects) and some elements about it that predict economic impact and other future catastrophes when there are honestly too many variables and the earth (along with humans and other species) are simply too adaptable to make those predictions “theory”.

    So perhaps our national and global politics would benefit by making a clear distinction between those things that are actual scientific theory versus those things that are predictions and hypotheses (and all too often ridiculed by politicians as “theory”). Then a healthy political debate can ensue. Until then, I think there will continue to be alot of name-calling and incrimination against the scientific community.

    Just a thought.

  13. Not all scientists are honest and perfect… and a handful of bad seeds has cast a bad light on a generally altruistic and honest profession. Thank goodness the scientific model of peer review and independent testing and retesting helps to weed those bad seeds out. Unfortunately politics can’t benefit in the same way :/

  14. reality is that science and religion are fragments of our minds , and we are a fragment of nature therefor it is delusional to suppose that we as part of nature can exalt ourselves and and understand nature can understand nature objectively. this is why science never ends and continually contradicts itself. quantam physics is a clear proof of that fact – the experiment of a cat being alive when observed but dead when the scientist is looking. this illustrates that the word out there looks in a certain way to us but we can not really know what it really is. creation and evolution are one and the same we are just trying to complicate simple thins. why cant we simple assume that GOD implemented evolution to create the world

    1. Author

      One can presume a divine power is behind the physical laws of the universe. That’s been a default assumption for many scientists throughout history. That doesn’t, however, make anything simpler. Even if you accept the metaphysics of theistic evolution, or biologos as it is sometimes called, that doesn’t add a single bit of understanding to the process of evolution. It can also lead to misconceptions about the actual process of evolution (e.g. that species evolve “toward” some long term goal.)

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