Earlier last evening, some friends were over at my place for gaming night, involved in a dinner and role-playing session, and the subject of the power of belief on organic diseases came up, particularly on such illnesses as terminal, or at the time, seemingly terminal cancer.
Well, long story short, that discussion ended with an agreement to disagree on the matter, but it presented itself as a perfect bloggable moment on a subject I don’t often touch on directly and some other things in previous discussions that bear clearing up: The effects of our personal worldviews on our assessment of various sorts of evidence, and the value afforded certain concepts, such as faith and evidence, by those same worldviews.
Yes, I’m an argumentative bastitch, but as Dave Hume said, ‘Truth springs from argument amongst friends,’ and even when that argument is annoying, it is still intellectually healthy when done constructively.
How much worth should we give belief in terms of performing seemingly miraculous events? How much worth should we give personal accounts of mysterious (to us) happenings? Are we being unimaginative, overly dismissive, too rational for our own good in not affording them great value as proof of something beyond what we really know? Is it dismissing personal experience as at all valid to be cautious of anecdotes without some other data to corroborate them? Is it closing our minds to new and wonderful things, against our best interests?
I do not consider myself particularly rational. For the above though, my responses would be that the first two require us to be very cautious, no to the third, no to the fourth, and absolutely f**k no to the last.
I deny the possibility of nothing that is true in any knowable, and thus in any showable sense. But I require that certain truth-criteria be met before I concede to the claimant that it is.
And I really shouldn’t have to, but I’m occasionally forced to point out that requiring evidence before accepting a claim is in no way the same thing as denying the very possibility that the claim could be true…neither logically nor semantically the same thing…not even close…
…After all, if you were on trial in court for a serious crime, and I mean really serious, wouldn’t you rather the jury need the prosecution to meet certain standards of evidence to establish reasonable grounds for your guilt rather than assuming it on faith just because it’s possible you might be guilty? Or at the other extreme, refusing to convict a defendant despite evidence?
My money’s riding on the jury seeking evidence for the conviction and accepting what it demands.
Well, that’s how skepticism works. If something is true, show it. And if you can show it, then you know it.
But what is experience anyway, and why is it such a powerful motivator for belief?
We are prone to thinking about things, about reasoning our way, maybe not as logically as we might, from point to point, from A to B, from factoid to conclusion, however hasty.
But we do not think in a vacuum. We need input for our thinking, and we get most of that from experience. Whether it’s things we directly see, hear, feel, taste or smell, or any of our other sensory channels, or second-hand experience, no less useful, consisting of what we read and hear from others, experience gives us most of the data we process with our thinking.
Everything we can say we know, we know through some form of experience, and we can convey that experience to others, not directly from our own minds, of course, but by demonstrating our claims to them through the same sensory channels, or if needed, others, that we came to know something, such as playing a recording of something we heard, showing the text of an article in a medical journal, or even directly showing the item of discussion itself for the examination of an unbeliever, as close to ‘proof-positive’ as there ever was.
It would be foolish to reject such direct proof, but often the availability of this is lacking, and we must resort to less direct means.
One way we try to convince is by giving accounts of what we believe happened. But because our minds can deceive us, even when working properly, our senses mislead us under unfamiliar viewing conditions, and our memories fade and distort with time, we must be careful to have something more than personal testimony as our proof. If we do have other evidence with which to verify our claims, testimony can be useful, and even without it, it can still be a good starting point for inquiry. It gives us a reason to say, “That’s pretty neat, let’s look into it further and find out if it really happened, and why,” or, “Let’s see if we can examine this closer and explain it.”
But anecdotal accounts cannot serve as evidence on their own, not without some other form of data to support them. Twenty anecdotes are no better than one in the court of science, much less a court of law, and 400 anecdotes are no better than 20. Even in a court of law, there must be corroboration of eyewitness testimony by other forms of evidence.
I’ve learned to give anecdotal accounts a wide berth, as they are notoriously unreliable as proof of anything by themselves, no matter how compelling they seem in the telling, no matter how sincere, honest, and reputable the one telling them.
I believe many things, rationally and not so, and have a worldview which can accommodate any phenomena that offer good reasons to accept their existence, to fit them within my ‘reality equation’ with few problems.
But as a skeptic, I’m aware of many ways we can be misled by our experience, and though I’m no more immune to being fooled, I’m more alert for those instances in which I may be fooled. I call it hedging my bets.
My friend’s account was certainly interesting, and if it could have been verified independently of what either of us believes, it would certainly be wonderful. If true exactly as related, it would mean that all we need do to cure the most horrific cancers is to motivate people to think positive thoughts, or perhaps artificially induce mystical or religious experiences in patients to induce healing.
We know how to do this last, and reliably too, with trans-cranial magnetic brain stimulation, drugs, meditation, and some neurological conditions can cause these experiences as well. We know how to stimulate what part of the brain to achieve whatever effect we seek to…
…and if this was as effective as often said, it would be standard medical procedure. It would easily, cheaply, and conveniently eliminate the need for expensive, dangerous treatments like chemotherapy if it really worked. It would revolutionize the treatment of malignant cancers.
But if my friend’s experience is to be a guide for his beliefs, so must my experience guide me, and my experience, both direct and indirect, has shown me consistently that the world just does not appear to work that way. I’ve never found even one soundly conducted clinical study that has validated the curative power of pure belief on aggressive cancers, anywhere in the medical literature.
Mind you, I was not always a skeptic, nor a religious non-believer. I became these after my own experiences disillusioned me about the power of faith. Belief can be a powerful motivator, but life has shown me, to much dismay, and much more disappointment, that belief by itself cannot literally work miracles.
My understanding could be wrong. Maybe miracles do happen, but just because someone doesn’t know how to explain a horrible disease seemingly vanishing from the one afflicted with it, there is no real reason to suppose that no one can possibly explain it, that therefore it constitutes proof of the power of faith, or whatever.
I don’t mean this in an arrogant way, but one must be careful to not commit an argument from ignorance…drawing a positive conclusion from what one doesn’t know, in this case, the lack of a mundane explanation, or even dismissing a mundane explanation out of hand.
Anything can be believed…In my experience, everything has been and is, somewhere or at some point in time. There is really no limit to what people can or will believe if the need is strong enough.
But belief should be based on reality, not the other way around, because every belief has its rival, and reality cannot possibly accommodate them all when they are so often obviously inconsistent with each other.
I no longer believe in belief, and giving up that belief was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do. My worldview currently affords more weight to reason, observational data, and objective standards of evidence, and has not impaired nor handicapped me in the least. My friend gives more credence to the power of belief than I do, and whether rightly or not is not under discussion here, in keeping with his own experiences.
How do your own experiences influence your perspective on the world?
How does this affect your assessment of claims?
What are your own criteria for truth?
How do you yourself judge what is real from what is not?
Do you even care about assessing claims?..
…Or is it enough to just believe?
MNQ is a question that I pose to you, my readers, and is posted each Monday at 12:00 PM. Do feel free to comment, and don’t worry yerselves overmuch… I’m not an ogre and I don’t bite…much.
I was having a conversation with a friend of mine, and the topic of inexplicable phenomena came up, as it often does in discussions of skeptical subject matter.
Now, before you think that I’m going to get on my high horse and play the stereotype of the clinical dogmatic Rationalist, going on about how there is no such thing as the unexplained, let me make something clear: Currently unexplained and utterly unexplainable are entirely different things. It is a logical fallacy to confuse the two.
I have taken great pains over the past three and a half years (logical fallacy: the argument from authority) to learn the basics of scientific thinking, the rudiments of the philosophy of science, its methods, its purpose, the role of imagination in science, how it works when its error-correcting machinery is smoothly running, and, most of all, its fallible human side and what happens when it goes wrong.
Read the next passage carefully:
Under no circumstances do I, nor does any reputable scientist that I know of claim in any way that science has it all figured out, that what we know now is all that exists, or that all has been absolutely explained, or will be.
There. I said it.
Science is at a point in our history where it has taken halting first steps to an understanding of the universe, and we are just finding out things unimagined twenty years ago, much less four hundred years. There is much still we will not know for a long, long time.
Science is just starting to give us a picture of the Cosmos that we can make sense of, though much factually supported science offends mere human sensibilities with bizarrely counterintuitive notions that thumb their collective noses at ‘common sense.’ The Universe, and the science by which we learn to understand it does not have to conform to our likes and dislikes to be true.
Back on topic.
Science is not just limited to the normal and the natural in the sense many believers in paranormal claims suppose…it is not blindsided by any particular phenomenon as long as it is both knowable and observable, and therefore can be tested in some meaningful fashion.
To paraphrase psychologist Susan Blackmore, science is simply a generalized way of asking questions and finding answers and not meaningfully restricted by a hypothesis merely because it is labeled ‘supernatural,’ or ‘paranormal.’
Science is not limited to a single restrictive, mechanistic ‘method,’ indeed, it has a multitude of different methods used for the study of an equally diverse multitude of things.
Are there things we absolutely can’t explain, that are truly inexplicable? Let me make it clear again that science hinges around asking questions, and once you prematurely hit upon some easy, magic explanation, stop asking questions and finding answers, even and especially if you dislike them, then you have stopped doing science. Science can do nothing with untestable ideas, and even tested but wrong ideas can be of use if they are interesting and lead to new and unexpected findings.
It just so happens though, that many supernatural claims are framed in such a way that they cannot possibly be refuted nor meaningfully verified: they are untestable in any conceivable way and therefore not even worthy of the honor of being called ‘wrong.’
I’ve heard philosopher Massimo Pigliucci discuss two sorts of unexplainable phenomena: the sort that has no rational, testable explanation, and that which does but due to human limits in reasoning and understanding, we cannot reach any explanation until we surpass those limitations, perhaps in the distant future if at all.
This is sort of like a dog understanding differential equations in calculus — as far as we can know, an understanding of the explanation is not possible in the foreseeable future.
Now there are many things about the universe that remain unexplained, most of them in fact, but in science you have to resist the temptation to just throw up your hands and give up looking for an explanation for an observed phenomenon, just because you haven’t yet found what it is. If you try hard enough it may be just around the corner.
To give up and call it supernatural or inexplicable is to renounce the spirit of science, a point which some paranormal believers miss.
Science loves a mystery as well as and even more than the mystical, but conversely tries to find answers to those mysteries, something which in my experience, mystics are loathe to do.
It seems to me as though they must perpetuate mysteries, preserving them for mystery’s sake alone, instead of asking the tough questions of a gentle inquiry of nature and in so failing to do miss the whole aim of science, and an understanding of what they argue against.
Are there unexplained things? Most certainly. Are there inexplicable things? Maybe, but we’ll never know until we try to find out and ultimately fail in the trying. Fnord.
(Last Update: 2010/06/04, Image Updated)