Thieving Thursday: Suspension of Disbelief

>> Thursday, July 23, 2009

This is an unusual thieving Thursday because, for one thing, I'm not sure if I actually made the comment. The comment was on Think Science but it isn't showing up which either means I didn't actually get it to go through (which frequently happens on blogs) or that it's being moderated. But, for entertainment value, I'm going to carry on as if my comment was there.

Now, I've pointed fingers and picked on religion here and there, not because I have anything against religion, but because I have a problem with how, too often, religion has been used and manipulated. I have a problem with anything that gets used as an excuse to treat people poorly, to hate, to judge, to close one's mind. Any belief system that seems to require turning off your brain and insulating it from facts and science, well, it's not for me. Science, in my opinion, should not be at odds with one's belief system.

But there's another side of the coin, a side I find just as frustrating. There are many laymen who take it as a given that scientists are closed to religion or, in fact, to any notion that can't be translated into math, closed to compassion, closed to anything that doesn't fit neatly into a science book, closed to wonder and whimsy, closed to dreams. The notion that scientists are closed to these things completely blows my mind. I mean, dreaming and wonder, isn't that what drives a scientist?

But, more than that--and that's what gets me--there are scientists and scientific explorers who seem to feel that layman notion is right. I don't know whether it's a reaction to the backwards anti-evolution, anti-reality religious fanatics or whether they truly believe that nothing can exist unless it can be proven and explained, that anything that can't be reliably demonstrated and scientifically peer reviewed can't really be true, that that is what science is all about.

That makes me very sad. Why?

Because dismissing something out of hand because it can't be proven to be so is just as close-minded as ignoring scientific proof because of one's beliefs. Science is about the pursuit of knowledge, searching for the explanations for reality - you can't do that objectively if you close yourself off to possibilities.

So much of science has come from exploring what didn't seem possible, challenging the idea of reality and science as it was then known. Galileo, Einstein, they were treading new ground. Vaccinations and penicillin are really counter-intuitive. I mean, protecting against disease with disease? With mold? And yet look what those revolutions in medicine have done for us.

Of course, some thing are readily disproved. The world is conclusively not six thousand years old. We conclusively landed on the moon. Etc. But I'm not talking about that.

Can we disprove God? Magic? Telepathy? Horoscopes? Reincarnation? Nope. Can't prove 'em either.

Am I saying that scientists have to believe in God (Allah, Buddha, etc)? In reincarnation? In psychic power? In magic? Of course not. But being a scientist doesn't preclude believing those things either. And, even if you don't believe, it doesn't mean you have to scoff because someone else does. The world, the universe, is a mighty strange place. I don't think we're so knowledgeable that we can automatically discount what can't be disproved.

I don't think we should confuse our beliefs with science - science has to meet criteria. But the impossible should be limited to what can be disproved not what can't be proved one way or the other.

Or, at least, that's what I think.


  • Shakespeare

    Could not agree more. Science does not require turning off one's belief system, nor does holding onto a faith require shutting off one's brain.

    Both can coexist quite magically together... or is that chemically?


  • The Mother

    Certainly there are scientists who deny all of those things (religion, astrology, etc)--but I don't think there are very many, apart from a few loud voices, who don't think religion is acceptable at all.

    And even they have their own forms of wonderment, excitement, and fascination--it just isn't with the supernatural, but with the completely, totally natural world.

    As you know, I am a non-theist. I view "religion" as a dangerous delusion that causes all sorts of social ills (Texas State Board of Education, anyone?). And I've been the brunt of too much of it to hold my tongue or my temper, anymore.

    But I don't believe that that excludes a personal spirituality. I don't know many scientists who do. Even Dawkins talks about the wonders of a rainbow or the grandeur of the mountains. If that's not a form of spirituality, I don't know what is. Why does it have to invoke the supernatural to be worthwhile?

  • Doctor Faustroll

    On the other stump, belief is a bit of a bugaboo that makes it virtually impossible for some people to pull their heads out of the cherished brown bunkers long enough to consider the real world.

    I find skeptics to be too trusting to trust.

    I occasionally find myself doing things based on acceptance and get pissed off.

    In my perfect world, every belief would be exposed for time wasting or self-mutilatory distraction it really is.

    People who believe in things or concepts are like cynics; they haven't looked at the big picture yet and said: you know, I don't care if it's good. It doesn't matter. Matter is simply the least interesting form of energy.

    And then, like a character in a Howard Nemerov poem, they wander off in search of water, cartoon balloons of speech proceeding them, signifying nothing minus one.

  • Stephanie B

    It doesn't, the Mother, and my own experience with scientists is similar. There's no need to believe anything that can't be demonstrated, can't be proved.

    But disbelieving, dismissing out of hand, notions that are nonscientific, that is just as dangerous as taking something unproven as fact. In fact, dismissing something because it can't be proven is doing exactly that: taking something unproven as fact because what you're dismissing hasn't been disproven.

    A scientist doesn't have to believe, but, unless a scientist has an omniscience I'm not aware of, I think he should be very leery of what he sneers on as impossible.

    Do you have to believe in telepathy? Certainly not. Can you tell me categorically it's impossible? I doubt it and, if you think you can, I'd like the proof.

    It is just as dangerous for scientists to dismiss out of hand notions that seem like magic as it is for religious extremists to discount proven facts and processes. Both severely limit your perspective and close one's mind to possibilities and, potentially, reality.

    That doesn't mean you have to buy into it. Be skeptical. Challenge claims. Demand proof when someone says something unlikely is a fact.

    But, if they believe something is true and there is no way to prove it one way or the other, be very careful not to confuse your opinion of reality with reality.

    It's a dangerous road when a scientist forgets that absence of evidence does not equate with evidence of absence. That kind of thinking is dangerous (just as confusing cause and effect gets people killed, like using the logic that vaccines are given the same time autism generally gets diagnosed implies a causal agent). Perhaps I'll explain what I mean tonight.

  • Stephanie B

    Doctor Faustroll, I'm not sure how to reply to your comment. To be honest, I don't understand it and I'm not sure what you're trying to say.

    Absolute belief (i.e. faith) can blind one to alternatives. So can absolute disbelief. That's my point.

  • The Mother

    I'm not sure I believe that anything is impossible. I do, however, believe that 90% (+) of the folks who claim to be able to do things like telepathy are swindling jerks. And you CAN prove that they're fakes. Randi has a grand time doing just that..

    Does that mean that, in 100 years, we won't figure out how to do it? Nope. But I'm going to be skeptical. I think the solution relies on technology, not incidental supernatural capabilities. It's just not in our genes (yet).

    As for dismissing things out of hand--sure, we all do that, if whatever it is is incompatible with our world-view. Scientists have a distinct worldview that tells us not to believe in stuff that has no basis in provable fact. Sure, it's not ALWAYS possible to prove that it doesn't exist, but, again, I have a biological background. I have to stay rooted in what I believe to be biologically possible.

  • Relax Max

    I agree with you. And I believe any real scientist worth his or her salt doesn't dismiss ANY possibility out-of-hand. You have written about people like Gallileo and others who, if they were to believe only what was evidently true, wouldn't have contributed what they did to our civilization.

    When I think of people like Einstein, I have to believe true science begins in the human mind. I don't believe in magic, but the eventual manifestation of those thoughts into concrete formulae and physical constructions like rockets SEEM like magic, or as close as it gets.

    I do realize Einstein - and Galileo, for that matter - were theoretical physicists rather than hands-on scientists, but I think the analytical reasoning process is still the same; something you yourself do whenever you are presented with a problem to solve.

    What am I babbling about? Simply that I think to discard ANYTHING as obviously ludicrous is to disadvantage your thinking processes. There is no reason to limit yourself by doing that. Things that are really not true will weed themselves out before too long.

  • Doctor Faustroll

    Hey Steph -

    I don't disbelieve either because it takes energy I don't have.

    I accept certain things as truths after much exposure to the insanity of life but I also have no problem in accepting that truths in the planes I inhabit may not apply to planes I am currently incapable of living in, like the argument that parallel lines never cross except when I need to start a little fissionable activity in my bathtub.

    I can't remember the name of the Nemerov poem, but I'm pretty sure it was in a collection called The Blue Swallows,. You can read another poem (The Human Condition) from the same collection on the Web at this address:

    I think you'd like his work. It's crammed with science confronting religion, and he was a hell of a nice guy, unlike me.

  • Stephanie B

    Can you, Mother? Actually, I tend to believe a very high percentage of those that try to make a living from psychic ability are swindlers, based on my limited experience. I've never met a pro that wasn't (but, admittedly, I've met very few pros). But, since most of the people I know with abilities never try to get a dime, the worst you could call them is delusional. I'd also note that not being able to do something on command is not the same as not being able to do something. Just sayin'.

    Well, Relax Max, we found something we agreed on. That's always gratifying.

    Doctor Faustroll, In science and technology, I have never found so many errors as when I look at what people take as obviously true (the assumptions). In my experience, it's almost impossible to learn if you've already decided what is and what isn't before you start. Same trap, ironically of the religious fanatics that drive scientists crazy.

  • Doctor Faustroll

    No argument from me about the prevalence of woodenheadedness in most human endeavors.

    Belief is belief and what it belies.

    I particularly like playing with people who insist that Biraq Insane Yomama, the nation's first openly kind of non-white president, is not an American citizen.

    You don't know how good it makes these idiots feel to read another idiot say: "I wouldn't trust a birth certificate as proof either. From Hawaii? Does that mean Puerto Ricans can take over the White House? Not on your watch!"

  • Stephanie B

    I remember some of them before the election. Unbelievable!

  • Aron Sora

    I think this confusion comes out of a misinterpretation of religion. Religion, I think, was developed to be a tool of self-development. Now, it has became a pre-fab belief system. Not moral system, belief system. Everything about the world is belief to be answered by a religion. I don't think this is the right way to perceive religion. I think religion is suppose to get the message of love everyone across. to point out that the only sin is stealing; every sin is a form of stealing. (I got that from kite runner).

    A religion which closes the mind is a religion which forgoes its duties to develop a person.

  • Boris Legradic


    I'd count myself as one of those people who think science and religion are mutually exclusive - I even go so far to say that religion and rational thought are mutually exclusive. That seemingly rational people can be religious just shows the amazing capacity of humans for disjunctive cognition.

    Does that mean my mind is closed? I don't think so - I am ready for any evidence for supernatural beings - show me your captive fairy, your pet-dragon or your miracle-swinging messiah, and I too will join the ranks of the faithful. But don't expect me to follow your (you as in the general straw-man) particular flavour of woo, or even to be particularly respectful of it (other than leaving you alone - I don't mind if you gaze into your crystal-ball all night), especially as there are thousands of other flavours of woo, all clamouring for my attention with varying intensity, all dispensing the Truth, and all mutually exclusive.

    Religion is an obsolete hold-over from the time where we needed something to explain why uncle Urg got hit by lightning, and that it has usurped social and moral authority over time is no excuse to still adhere to it.

    I am not a militant atheist (although I have become more virulent as I get older), and I won't burn down your church or restrain you from sacrificing lambs to your ancestors, but I do demand the same thing of theists - keep your religion out of my life!

    One last thing: You wrote ofdismissing something out of hand because it can't be proven... as something sad and bad, but can you think of a better reason to dismiss something? If I tell you the universe has been created by the rainbow-coloured unicorn Faye, which exists outside the universe and can never be perceived by man or his instruments, you'd better dismiss my story out of hand, or at least point out that since Faye cannot be perceived, her existence is utterly irrelevant to us. Anything else would be just pandering to the crazy...

  • Stephanie B

    If there's one thing I hate, it's losing my long comment response and I only hate it more when it's on my own blog. Now to reconstruct...

    Boris, I'm guessing you are either an engineer or in one of the applied sciences rather than the more theoretical. You are not alone in thinking the way you do, but I don't think it's what science is. I think you are brilliant and creative, but I don't agree with you. (And don't require you agree with me.)

    I DON'T think belief is required for science, but I think active disbelief is counterproductive. You asked, "One last thing: You wrote ofdismissing something out of hand because it can't be proven... as something sad and bad, but can you think of a better reason to dismiss something?" - Yes I can. Dismissing something because it can be readily disproved makes perfect sense to me.

    You also said, "I don't think so - I am ready for any evidence for supernatural beings - show me your captive fairy, your pet-dragon or your miracle-swinging messiah, and I too will join the ranks of the faithful." History says otherwise. Proof handed to someone who dismisses a notion out of hand without proof is as effective as showing proof to a flat earther. He's already decided. It happens in science all the time - someone has a breakthrough and scientists scoff at it for years, sometimes generations, because it doesn't fit in with their notion of reality. To my mind, that's not different from the religious fanatics who do the same.

    You said, "since Faye cannot be perceived, her existence is utterly irrelevant to us." That's a very telling remark. Bacteria and viruses used to be imperceivable to us. Were they irrelevant to us? How many thousands if not millions have been saved with hygiene measures against bacteria we can't see? Thousands died from radiation they couldn't perceive. Was that radiation irrelevant to us? The real question to me is, are we really so arrogant as to think that just because we can't perceive it, it doesn't exist? That we already know the real world well enough we can say, with assurity, there is nothing else to see, that we know it all well enough?

    Last time we were arrogant enough to say so, we called it the "dark ages", devoted to Aristotlean science. And the breakthroughs that helped drag us from the mire of those dark times were those people willing to challenge the prevailing "knowledge" by assailing and questioning things that "couldn't be" - even if they suffered for it.

    Admittedly, I have an advantage. I have children, three children all born with existing personalities that I know are more than genetic, though you might readily tell me otherwise - though I believe it's because you don't know them like I do. I don't know how one can be a parent and not believe in at least some form of magic.

    As for Faye, she didn't make the universe. Unicorns are far too lazy and always male (and pervert or they wouldn't go after young girls). :)

  • Boris Legradic

    Ahh, it seems we have a long comment-war on our hands! You will find me, dear Lady, more than ready!

    First though: You guessed right. I am an experimental physicist, although I do hope to make some inroads in theory as well, one of these days.

    Second, I have to accede - disbelieving in something because it has been disproven is of course the best reason of them all - with a small caveat(or addendum): If you can prove that something can't be proven, I personally would deem that uh, fact? statement? irrelevant and not worthy of further discussion, which for the sake of this argument might be considered the same as disbelieving (in a higher being).

    Now back to Faye, who is rapidly becoming my favourite non-existing lazy rainbow-coloured unicorn. She was, the poor thing, a badly constructed straw-man I wanted to knock down. I had a whole train of thought holding her up, but did not write anything of it down, so you rightly poked some more holes in her and now that metaphor is (pardon the pun) ridden to the ground.

    My thinking went along these lines: Higher beings were invented by our ancestors to explain the facts of life: Why people are born, why they die, what happens after, etc. Some theists will disagree voiciferiously with me on this point, but we cannot deny that holy books like the bible were taken as authorities in things physical for a long time, see geocentric worldview et al. Then something awful happended to poor old established religion: Science. More and more "facts" in the Gospel where proven wrong (Young earth creationists notwithstanding), and the churches had to retreat behind the argument that the bible is not to be taken literally after all.

    The modern catholic church goes so far (I think, my knowledge of the doctrine is sketchy) as to say that it is impossible to prove the existence of god, since it would take away faith and replace it with knowledge.

    This is where Faye comes back in, on her dainty little hooves. When I introduced her as something that "can never be percieved", I meant that literally, as a Gedankenexperiment: Suppose there is a Faye, which can never be observed directly or indirectly - then I submit that her existence is irrelevant, and pondering her existence and her intentions is at best an exercise in futility.

    Why attack religion through this angle? For me, every other definition of religion (i.e. a higher being whose existance could conceivably be shown) places a burden of proof squarely on the shoulders of the believer: You want me to believe in Faye, you have to show her to me. As Sagan said: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof - especially if you want me to donate money ;)

    And now I think I will have to have a thieving thursday, because I have never before written about my beliefs (or rather, lack thereof) so deeply...

  • Stephanie B

    To tell you the truth, Boris, I don't think of it as a war so much as a healthy discussion.

    I do not, by any means, advocated supporting a belief you don't share and don't say anyone has to believe ANYTHING that isn't proved.

    There is, however, a difference between not believing and disbelieving, particularly for something that can't (or hasn't been) proved one way or the other. Disbelieving (when there is no hard evidence one way or the other) is believing something is NOT TRUE - and the belief that something is NOT TRUE, when there is no evidence, is not more (or less valid) than believing something is TRUE without evidence.

    In both cases, in my opinion, your internal decision that something is true or not true flavors how you see evidence later and close you off to avenues that might be more valid than one's belief (and it applies to both).

    In my case, I limit what I believe in absolutely to a tiny subset that fits in with my own observations (data that works for me but might not for someone else). I limit what I disbelieve to whatever can be readily disproved and I neither believe or disbelieve everything else.

    I treat all assertions of "truth" with skepticism and see if I can prove/disprove it. If I can't, I choose to refuse to make up my mind, always ready for data. By doing so, I believe I am more open to any possibilities.

    Religion gets into this and I don't disagree with your assessment. A significant part of most, if not all, ancient religions was explaining the physical world around one. Just because the explanations were, across the board, incorrect, doesn't preclude a higher being, though it certainly doesn't prove it either.

    In my opinion.

    P.S. Steal away.

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