Evidence and Faith

Blog 20140709 

A common trope among scientists is the conviction that science relies on evidence, but that religion relies on faith. Readers of this Blog, however, know that both science and religion are founded on faith, manifested as subconscious presuppositions or overt assumptions. The only real difference is that the foundational assumptions of science and religion are opposites. Thus, one believes either that “there are material causes for all effects” or one does not. Because the universe is infinite, we cannot prove that this deterministic assumption is true without discovering the material causes for all effects, which is impossible. As with all "Ten Assumptions of Science," all we can do is make that assumption and go about our work.

Our use of deterministic assumptions is no guarantee that we are right about anything, but the use of their indeterministic opposites nearly always guarantees that we are wrong.

Stephen Crothers wrote:
6:10 AM (4 hours ago)
“There are two things that a scientific theory must fundamentally satisfy:

(a) Correspondence with the empirical evidence.
(b) Logical consistency.

Violation of either invalidates the theory. However, it is possible, and has occurred many times in the history of science, that a false theory has actually satisfied aspects of empirical evidence, only to be later found to be defective.”

Over the last half century, I have often been appalled by pronouncements of the scientific as well as the religious that appear to me as inconsistent with evidence or logic. Being especially curious about that, I have been interested in how those folks think. The answer is largely found in "The Ten Assumptions of Science," but it goes farther than that. It turns out that how we reason is dependent on our age and the state of our personal evolutionary development. We are all born as little indeterministic suckers, with evidence lying all about us. We need deterministic assumptions to make sense of any of it. That is what learning is.

But what we are capable of learning depends on our developmental stage. Solipsistic, self-centered toddlers think that they can make the entire world go away by simply putting a blanket over their heads. This experiment, defined as the manipulation of the outside world, provides “evidence” that they are right. Their conclusion is a perfectly logical train of thought founded on the indeterministic assumption of immaterialism. Other infants wave their arms around, performing little experiments that help them find out that their surroundings contain what seems to be matter and what does not seem to be matter. The ultimate conclusion that the universe contains nothing but matter may never be realized. Because the universe is infinite and matter has infinitely variable characteristics, a full-blown faith in materialism requires sophisticated knowledge that takes decades of experimentation and observation.

According to Piaget, object permanence, which is the child’s first significant brush with materialism, does not appear until about eight months. He found this out by putting his child’s toy under a blanket while the child watched. Not until the child could form an image of the toy in his mind, would he try to find the toy by removing the blanket.[1] Before that, it was clear that the child thought that little piece of matter had simply disappeared into thin air. Obviously, “evidence” is not enough for making correct predictions. Some kind of preconceived notion is needed as well.

Here is an amusing story told by my niece about her almost 3-yr old son:

"We took Silas fishing again and he has gone enough times to see the process so I asked him to explain how to go fishing.

Silas: You dig the worms then you put the worm on your fishing pool then you put the pool in the water and the worm turns into a fish.

Me: No Si, the worm doesn't turn into a fish.

Silas: Only the bobber do?"

Again, plenty of “evidence,” but an insufficiently developed “faith” for the proper analysis. Someday, after he takes enough chemistry, Silas might have the “faith” expressed by the Fifth Assumption of Science, conservation (Matter and the motion of matter can be neither created nor destroyed). At his age, its indeterministic opposite, creation, is just as logical for him, although even there he has already advanced to the stage where he believes things continue to exist but can be miraculously changed into other things. He probably would develop a still more advanced faith in conservation a bit sooner if he fished in water clear enough to see the fish. Note the natural, near-sighted tendency here to make microcosmic mistakes (e.g., to overemphasize the microcosm over the macrocosm). As soon as Silas learns more about the macrocosm, he will be able to include more of it in his analysis. Hopefully, his development eventually will surpass that of the Big Bangers who still believe in creation and never did get beyond systems philosophy.

By the time he reaches seven years, Silas will be able to conserve liquid. That is, he will believe that the quantity of liquid does not change when poured from a short fat glass into a tall skinny one. This is the Concrete Operational Stage of development. “Five-year-old children would think that there was a different amount because the appearance has changed.”[2] The child starts to become logical, but only with concrete objects. Abstract and hypothetical thinking comes later—much, much later.

I once challenged our much older daughter on her ability to analogize. Now, the only pet we had in the house was our cat. I mistakenly asked her if she had fed the dog. She said, “But dad, we don’t have a dog.” She was right, of course, but she also was demonstrating another indeterministic assumption, absolutism. In this case, that particular faith saved her from an obligation she would just as soon postpone. This was an early sign. She never was very good at abstraction and hypothetical thinking, judging by her difficulty with geology. She has become wonderfully successful in her occupation, but she does not aspire to be a theoretician. Realize that everyone thinks differently.

Indeterminist Who Hung the Jury

I once was on a jury in a case in which one of our 12 members voted “not guilty” in spite of plentiful evidence for guilt. Sorry to say, the judge made two serious errors. First, he failed to reject our problem juror despite her statement in answer to the question about whether she could convict the defendant if he was guilty. She clearly stated: “Judge not lest ye be judged.” Second, he admitted evidence that was outside the “chain of custody.”

The “he said/she said” testimony came down to whether the gun used in the crime was made of plastic or metal. The defendant brought his little brother’s plastic gun to court as evidence indicating that the incident only involved a plastic gun. The accuser said that it was cold and that it was metallic. Our hung juror said that this meant he was telling the truth, she was lying, and therefore he was innocent. We were shocked. There was no changing her mind. She had only wasted a couple weeks for all. The second jury convicted the defendant, 12-0.

I am finally getting my head around the “logic” used by the judge and by this woman. The judge maybe thought that the introduction of the plastic gun was harmless. He must have forgotten that he had a juror who stated that she could not convict without risking her place at the pearly gates. Despite its irrelevance to the case, the plastic gun gave her the excuse she needed to handle the cognitive dissonance. A possible lesson here is that folks will grasp at anything, even outright lies, to support their faith or the actions they wish to take. Another lesson is that not everyone is very good at thinking abstractly or macrocosmically. This juror apparently could not imagine much beyond her immediate environs and the chain of causality. She faced two witnesses and a plastic gun as evidence. Reducing the situation to that 3-part system, the solution was obvious to her: not guilty. The significance of macrocosmic events involving causality and the “chain of custody” apparently was beyond her imagination.

Evidence and its Interpretation

Of course, our juror was not a scientist and this little incident argues for an improvement in scientific education in our schools—for judges as well as jurors. It shows that “evidence” alone does not assure correct answers. It shows how assumptions affect the interpretation of evidence. Evidence is never absolute and the interpretations of evidence not as obvious as absolutists like to think.

As scientists, we are trained to handle evidence and observations with great care. That is what controlled experiments and double-blind clinical tests are all about. That is why I have a standard request when someone promotes a particular remedy for this or that ailment: “Show me the table.” That means, of course, that I want to see the with and without data for a carefully designed test. Most of the time, those claims are what we call “anecdotal,” just a story about the times that the remedy worked. The salesperson conveniently forgets about the times when it did not.
Here I bring up what I call an “Einsteinism,” which is a prediction that is correct for the wrong reason. The classic is Einstein’s prediction that gravity was the result of curved spacetime and that light was a corpuscle affected by gravitation. Light from distant stars thus would bend as it passed by the Sun. In 1919, Arthur Eddington (an indeterminist of the first rank), took numerous measurements during an eclipse, which purported to show such bending. The report made headlines and anointed Einstein as the world’s greatest genius overnight. Only one problem: The result was simply due to refraction in the Sun’s atmosphere. The bending was no more unusual than the bending we see when we put one end of a pole in water. It certainly did not prove that perfectly empty space is curved or that light is a particle. As with other Einsteinisms, this one is still used by some gullible physics teachers as “evidence” for General Relativity Theory.

Folks enamored of a particular bit of evidence frequently forget about the assumptions that led to focus on that portion of the universe. Our soon to be published paper on the Milankovitch Theory is an example.[3] For over seven decades, changes in Earth’s precession (wobble of the axis), obliquity (angle of the axis), and eccentricity (circularity of orbit) were cited as the causes of the glacial cycle. Our thorough analysis demonstrated that raw data provided no evidence for the theory. There were two main reasons it was so well accepted for so long: 1) it seemed reasonable and 2) the theory itself was used to manipulate the data before interpretation.

In conclusion, evidence is nothing without faith, the underlying, unprovable assumptions that we need to make interpretations in an infinite universe. A microcosm that you consider to be evidence may not be so considered by an indeterminist who does not have faith in causality, or chooses to use that belief only sporadically. 

[1] McLeod, S. A. (2010). Sensorimotor Stage. Retrieved from http://www.simplypsychology.org/sensorimotor.html

[3] Puetz, Stephen J., Prokoph, Andreas, and Borchardt, Glenn, 2014, An alternative to the Milankovitch Theory (submitted).

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