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Atheism, philosophy, Religion, science

On Science and Knowledge, Part II

EDIT:  This is a first draft of an article that has become its own page.  Please read the new versionHERE.  

The Problem of Induction


Most objections to science come from people who have heard of the Problem of Induction, but don’t understand it. Put simply, it is the observation that nothing empirical (that is, existing in the material universe) can be known with certainty. People who subscribe to a philosophical concept called solipsism insist that the only thing that can ever be known is self. That is, I can never know for certain that anything besides myself exists. In fact, I can never know exactly what I am, only that I am. This is sometimes referred to as the “Brain in a Vat” theory. That is, we might simply be brains in vats, and that everything we perceive of as reality is an intricate illusion.

This supposed problem is not nearly as difficult to resolve as you might immediately suppose. For one thing, there’s an obvious issue with the “Brain in a Vat.” Even if it is true (and we can’t conclusively prove that it’s not) we cannot help the fact that we can’t test the idea in any way. If we are trapped in an illusion, then we are trapped, and the illusion, for every conceivable purpose which we might have, is real.

Furthermore, if there is some evidence that we are brains in a vat, the theory becomes testable. If we discovered a “tear in the Matrix,” for lack of a better term, we could scientifically study it, and if there was enough evidence to sway our opinion to the conclusion, it would no longer be in the realm of philosophy. It would be scientific fact.

We must, it appears, conclude that all the available evidence suggests that reality is what it appears to be, that other people exist, that our senses are basically reliable, and that through rigorous testing, we can verify the reliability of our observations.

Nevertheless, some will argue that even granting the reality of this existence, the fact that science cannot prove anything with certainty negates the value of science. This is clearly absurd, and we can prove it with the somewhat tedious examples I gave in the previous section. When provided with overwhelming evidence – the actual photo in question, in this instance – we can say with virtual certainty that a thing is a fact. We can clearly demonstrate that some sets of evidence are stronger than others, and that for all practical purposes, science does have measurable value.

Finally, (and forgive me for getting a little bit technical) scientific certainty isn’t based on guesswork. It’s based on deduction. Math is deductively true. That is, it is 100% certain. Probability equations are math, and therefore, based on deduction. When we can say with mathematical certainty that a thing is 50% certain, for example, it is certainly 50% certain. What we cannot say is that the two things we’re assigning probability to are 100% certain. However, as we’ve seen, we can be so overwhelmingly sure that there’s no point in questioning them.

Consider this very simple example. Suppose that I am in a soundproof room (and suppose that I have used science to prove with overwhelming certainty that it really is soundproof) and there are only four things in the room – three boxes and me. The boxes are all across the room from me, and there is a noise coming from that general direction. With no other information at all, I can say that I am scientifically certain that the noise comes from one of the three boxes.*  However, at this point, any box I pick is only 33% likely to be the correct box. Now, suppose I ask an assistant to remove one of the boxes that is not making the noise. Now, I have a 50% likelihood of guessing correctly. If the assistant removes another box, and the noise persists, I can be 100% certain that the box is making the noise, even without doing any more experiments.

Here’s where we need to be sure to separate empiricism from probability. I cannot be 100% certain that I am standing in a room, or that if I am standing in the room, I am not the subject of some elaborate hoax, or that I am not suffering from a hallucination. As I’ve shown, I can find ways to be so certain that it would be absurd to suggest otherwise, but to be pedantic, I am only nearly certain. However, if reality is what it appears to be, it is 100% certain that there is a 33% chance of each box being the source of the noise. In other words, once we have decided to trust our senses, we can invoke mathematical certainty and be completely certain of the numbers.

In many cases, this is what science attempts to do. When there are multiple possible explanations, scientists try to eliminate as many as possible. If they can do this successfully, and only one explanation remains, they can feel certain that it is the correct one. At every step of the scientific process, everything is questioned, tested, and retested. Nothing is ever assumed until it is demonstrated to be so certain that it is worth assuming. Even then, scientists are perfectly happy to concede that new information could exist which would change their conclusion.

However, it’s important to note that there is also a way to calculate the probability of this happening. Suppose that science has observed a phenomenon thoroughly, and has determined that it has happened one hundred thousand times, and in all cases, it happened in exactly the same way. Furthermore, the explanation of the phenomenon made it logically necessary that a certain other phenomenon happen in a very particular way, and that has been observed a hundred thousand times, without incident. Now, suppose that there is a chain of events, where there are a hundred thousand things that would logically have to happen a certain way, and all hundred thousand have been observed a hundred thousand times, without a single instance of deviation.

How likely is it that the logic is wrong? How possible is it that our predictions are wrong, and that there is some other explanation for our observation of all of these events? Obviously, it’s staggeringly improbable. It’s so improbable that without any other reason to believe otherwise, we can say that this is a fact of nature. Again, this is what science attempts to do – demonstrate things so many times that certainty becomes nearly complete – so nearly complete that it becomes unnecessary to provide a disclaimer because of the “Problem of Induction.”


Religious Claims

Theists everywhere claim that they receive their “truths” about the universe from a source other than science. They must, for science contradicts the claims of the religious. Any wonder that theists claim that science is incapable of addressing the questions of religion? Unfortunately, this is simply not true, and a careful examination of religious claims will prove it.

When a Christian claims to know something about the nature of God, where is he getting his information? There are several possibilities. One of the most common sources is the Bible. Also, many claim to have “heard the voice of God” in one way or another. Perhaps they got a strong intuitive feeling about something. Perhaps they heard a voice in their head. Perhaps there was an event in their life that led them to believe that God was manipulating events in order to “send them a message,” or reward or punish them. Perhaps they heard the testimony of hundreds, or even thousands of people claiming to have evidence of God’s nature. Perhaps they were swayed by the fact that millions of people share a belief in the Christian God.

Here, we must ask a pointed question. What do all of these circumstances have in common? Quite simply, they are all empirical evidence for God’s existence! Evidence, as we have seen already, is nothing more and nothing less than bits of data for our brain to interpret. All of these bits of data that Christians mention when asked about their belief in God are just that – bits of data. Like any other pieces of data, they have a certain degree of reliability.

Without laboriously dissecting each category of evidence, let’s just admit the obvious. Only a few minutes ago, you certainly agreed with me that taking my word about something was basically useless as reliable evidence. Without reliable physical proof of my photo, you would be unwilling to bet ten thousand dollars that you could guess its subject. If you think about it for a moment (without thinking too much about God) you will quickly realize that testimony is only good when there is a reason to believe it.

As for internal “feelings,” we can make the same observation. Everyone has had feelings that turned out to be wrong. Without other reliable evidence, feelings are not good enough. Likewise, we have all seen things that were highly coincidental, but turned out to be just that – coincidence. Finally, it should be patently obvious that a book is nothing more than a written version of someone’s testimony, which we already established as unreliable.

Having laid bare the truth about religious claims of knowledge, we see that they are false on two counts. First, they are not relying on non-empirical claims. Quite the contrary. Every bit of “proof” is based on something that they observed in the material world with one of their senses. Second, none of their evidence passes muster as reliable. Instead, each one is inherently untrustworthy, and easily proven to be so. Does this prove that Christians are wrong about the existence of their God? No, it does not. However, it does expose a very nasty truth about it: There is absolutely no good evidence for it.

If you remember the first example of science that I gave you, you will realize that the claims of God’s existence are as outlandish as the claim of alien spacecraft or space stations from Andromeda. None of the three have any basis for certainty, and as we have seen, the question is most certainly not outside of the realm of science. In fact, it is absolutely impossible NOT to use science to answer questions. The only question is whether or not we will use science that is reliable.

This last point is important enough that we shall linger on it for another moment. As I said, science is nothing more and nothing less than the description of how we learn about the universe. There is no way for us to avoid processing evidence and reaching conclusions. The only question is whether our methods will be testable, repeatable, and verifiable. Like any other method, science can be done well, or done poorly. Scientists have spent hundreds of years using deductive logic, empirical evidence, and inductive reasoning to refine and perfect the methodology of science, to the point that well trained scientists can achieve astoundingly accurate information about the world. Scientists are always willing to admit that they are not 100% certain of their conclusions, but if they are good scientists, they will also be quick to point out that there is a degree of certainty to their conclusions that is extremely reliable – so reliable that you can bet everything you own on it and be assured of winning.


Back To Religion

Having established that it is literally impossible not to do science, we must return to the question of religion and how it perverts and degrades science. Remember, every conclusion about the world is scientific. The only distinction is whether the conclusion was reached by using good science or bad science. In the case of religion, it is unquestionably the result of bad science. (Think about it. If it was good science, scientists would call it scientific, right?)

By separating itself from good science, religion is admitting conclusively that its conclusions are at best unreliable and at worst completely wrong. This is not a trivial matter. As we are all too aware, religious conclusions are used in everyday life in all walks of life. In politics, they can be bitterly divisive. In classrooms, they blur the lines of separation between church and state. In the homes, they are used to teach moral and sexual norms. What possible reason can we come up with for allowing conclusions that are admittedly suspect at best from being the default conclusions, simply because they are religious.

The answer that is most often given, at least in my experience, is that religion is not addressed by science. Unfortunately, as I have just demonstrated, it most certainly is. There is no basis for the claim that knowledge can be gained any way except through empirical observation and inductive conclusions. In fact, when the religious are pressed, we notice that they never describe in any meaningful way what method they use for gaining knowledge of God. They can’t, for if they did, they would be admitting to scientific scrutiny.


The Cult of Credulity

Now, I wish to leave Christianity for a moment and focus on other areas of American life. Several years before I began writing this blog, America invaded Iraq, based on the testimony of a president and his cabinet whose political motives could hardly be described as morally pure. Though the signs of deceit were everywhere, Americans followed blindly into a war that has cost tens of thousands (perhaps hundreds of thousands) of lives. The best evidence for this decision was a dubious link between Sadaam Hussein and Al Qaeda, and equally dubious evidence of “weapons of mass destruction.”

It’s easy to look at this in hindsight and say that we were deceived, and that it is the fault of the president and his political cronies. It may comfort us to say that it is not our responsibility, but the cold facts are a little less rosy. As a nation, we are credulous. We believe that sending money to faith healers will cure cancer. We believe that three sentence blurbs in newspapers have personal relevance to us based upon where the stars were positioned in the sky when we were born. We believe that humans are not just animals, but creatures placed on earth by God, and given authority over the whole earth. We believe that Global Warming isn’t a problem. We believe that love is unconditional and that marriage is supposed to last forever. We believe that psychics can tell us where lost babies can be found. We believe that we can talk to our dead relatives through mediums, if only we use the correct crystals while summoning spiritual energy. We believe that God loves us more than the Muslims.

In short, Americans are an incredibly gullible people. To be fair, the same can be said for most of the people on earth, but Americans are, in many ways, uniquely gullible. We are the only nation in the civilized world that actually considers teaching children that the earth is six thousand years old. This is a symptom of a larger problem, and that problem, I believe, is the notion that “Faith is a Virtue.”

Faith, or rather, the belief in things that defy evidence, is the source of thousands of bizarre beliefs. Regardless of the scientific explanation for it, the reality is that people really, really want to believe in a lot of nonsense. The question we must ask ourselves is whether or not that desire is enough justification for allowing a culture to continue down the path of unscientific conclusions. We can clearly see that things which are “natural” are not necessarily good. We cannot assume that our natural inclination to credulity is good, either. In fact, it should be patently obvious that it’s harmful.

Since there is no way to gain knowledge except through science, we can ask the question very simply. Which is more likely to give us correct answers: Good science, or Bad science? The answer is so patently obvious that we wonder why everyone doesn’t know it. My explanation is that our culture teaches two blatantly false ideas. First, we teach that science is just “one way” to get correct answers. Second, we teach that science is dangerous because it threatens the “human spirit” or that it encourages immoral conclusions about government or personal ethics. I believe I have sufficiently demonstrated the ridiculous nature of the first claim. The second will require a lot more information to dispel, but that is what I intend to do. Having established that science is the only way to learn true information about the universe, we must try to learn what science says about human morality, and if we can, determine whether or not science really does lead us down a path to moral depravity and the devaluation of human life.

The Alternative

We must return to something I mentioned in the first paragraphs of this chapter. Namely, I want to address the claim that I’m attempting to take all the imagination and fun out of life by making it all about cold hard science. I hope it’s already becoming clear that this is absurd. Imagination and fun are part of the human experience. There are perfectly good scientific explanations for why we have imaginations, and why fun is important to us, and these often end up telling us things about how we came to be human in the first place. Will the knowledge of what makes “fun” fun make it any less fun? Of course not, any more than having a degree in linguistics makes a great novel any less entertaining. Knowledge adds to the human experience, and those who say that it makes life cold are either ignorant of the true nature of science, or afraid science will render their own view of life irrational.

By examining all aspects of what it means to be human, I hope to give you the freedom and the knowledge to make your own life better, and perhaps happier. By dispelling myths that have been hanging over us for centuries, I hope to give you more options for how to have a fulfilling and meaningful life. In fact, I can assure you that the only option I intend to take away is the option to accept bad science as good science and feel good about it.

* To be truly scientific, I would need to eliminate the possibility that multiple boxes were emitting noise or that through some effect or combination of effects, more than one box was working in concert to produce a single noise.  In science, before we can say we are certain, we must eliminate all potential rival theories.  For this example, however, I assumed a rather simple scheme for illustration purposes.

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Discussion

6 thoughts on “On Science and Knowledge, Part II

  1. ” How likely is it that the logic is wrong? How possible is it that our predictions are wrong, and that there is some other explanation for our observation of all of these events? Obviously, it’s staggeringly improbable. It’s so improbable that without any other reason to believe otherwise, we can say that this is a fact of nature. Again, this is what science attempts to do – demonstrate things so many times that certainty becomes nearly complete – so nearly complete that it becomes unnecessary to provide a disclaimer because of the “Problem of Induction.””

    In general, I think this is a nice article, but you’re begging the question regarding your justification for the use of induction. You’re essentially saying that due to previous experience, unknown future experiences will be similar and fall under the same supposedly observed rules and laws. And while we all instinctively feel that to be the case, that is precisely what we are looking to justify in a non-circular fashion. And (no disrespect intended) you’ve failed to do that. You’re assuming a uniformity of nature. You’re assuming that your experience is representative of what is not and will never be experienced. You’re assuming what does not logically follow, namely that future events must follow past ones.

    There’s a reason this problem has persisted for so long. Many have tried this route, but when scrutinized carefully, it fails miserably. Hume pointed this out when he first posed the problem, and yet people just keep trying to say what he has refuted so elegantly. I do believe that I have come up with a non-circular justification for using inductive inference. I am awaiting some feedback from a couple of philosophy professors.

    Again, still a nice article overall.

    Posted by Phil | August 5, 2009, 4:06 am
  2. “In general, I think this is a nice article, but you’re begging the question regarding your justification for the use of induction. You’re essentially saying that due to previous experience, unknown future experiences will be similar and fall under the same supposedly observed rules and laws. And while we all instinctively feel that to be the case, that is precisely what we are looking to justify in a non-circular fashion. And (no disrespect intended) you’ve failed to do that.”

    I haven’t attempted to do that. I’ve put the burden of proof on the opposition. If someone wants to claim that nature is not uniform, or that the next instant will NOT be like this instant, they need to give me a good reason to believe so. Otherwise, I have no particular reason to believe them. This isn’t about proving that the universe will be uniform in the future. It’s about demonstrating that until and unless we are given a reason to believe otherwise, it’s ok to go with the thing that gives every appearance of being the truth.

    Posted by hambydammit | August 6, 2009, 12:07 am
  3. “I haven’t attempted to do that. I’ve put the burden of proof on the opposition. If someone wants to claim that nature is not uniform, or that the next instant will NOT be like this instant, they need to give me a good reason to believe so. Otherwise, I have no particular reason to believe them. This isn’t about proving that the universe will be uniform in the future. It’s about demonstrating that until and unless we are given a reason to believe otherwise, it’s ok to go with the thing that gives every appearance of being the truth.”

    I apologize for misunderstanding your position then. But this reminds me of what Atheists tend to do with Theists (I’m an Atheist, btw). If you assume that your belief should continue then you are the one making the positive statement. If you make a statement about reality, namely that you have every right to assume what you believe is true, then you are the one the burden of proof is placed on. The inductive skeptic is merely saying that that particular perspective is unjustified, not because the universe lacks uniformity, but because you haven’t shown that it is uniform. The inductive skeptic doesn’t go around saying that the universe is in fact non-uniform. They are simply refuting specific positive claims.

    And I’m sure you’re familiar with the Atheist/Theist analogy I’m referring to. It’s not my burden to show that there’s no god.

    Posted by Phil | August 7, 2009, 4:38 pm
  4. Sure, I’m familiar with the analogy. I’m also quite familiar with the ultimate un-provability of the uniformity of nature. My point is that this isn’t the philosophical dilemma some people like to make it out to be. We’re not talking about winning a nobel prize in philosophy here. We’re talking about giving the average *non-philosopher* the understanding he needs to justify to himself and others his belief in the scientific method.

    For practical purposes, there are only two real conversations a person can have:

    1. A: “The universe has given every indication of being uniform for its entire 14.9 billion year existence. There has not been a single observed deviation from this uniformity.”
    B: “Cool… then we probably ought to go on the assumption that the universe is, and will continue to be, uniform. I’m really glad knowledge is possible. It would suck if it wasn’t…. I mean… that would be weird… cause… you know… none of what we’re saying would… like… mean anything…”

    2. A: “You can’t prove the universe is uniform.”

    B: “Um…. ok…. So… um….”

    A: “Wanna go play baseball?”

    B: “Ummm… ”

    You get what I’m saying? Uniformity of nature is a great topic for PhD dissertations, I suppose, but on a practical level, most people wouldn’t have any idea where to start talking about the possibility of anything else. Hacks and theists think it gives them some kind of justification for crackpot beliefs, and it doesn’t. Most theists wouldn’t know a Bayesian prediction if it kicked them in the nuts, and anyone who would assert the truth of such a staggering improbability as the non-uniformity of the universe in the next instant or two… well…

    Posted by hambydammit | August 7, 2009, 5:46 pm
  5. I forget that you have some specific goals in mind with this blog. I agree that many theists look for holes (gaps) in non-theist arguments or arguments that may be taken to contradict theistic assertions, and try to use them as “evidence” to support the theistic tenets (god of the gaps). In this way, those theists are actually making positive claims and thus have an equal burden of proof to deal with. The intention behind such arguments is about showing a camp to be “right” rather than an earnest attempt to find truth. Even if they believe that that’s what they are doing.

    So it seems that you’re taking the Humean route on his basis of pragmatism. I can’t blame you for that, we’re going to do it anyway, solution or not.

    Posted by Phil | August 7, 2009, 6:48 pm
  6. Well, as you point out, we can’t really do anything other than assume that the future will be like the past. I know you understand the dilemma, but I’ll spell it out a little bit for others reading. Either:
    1) The future will be like the past.
    2) The future will not be like the past.

    If (1), then all is good, and we can continue to do things like make predictions, use science, gain knowledge, and so forth.

    If (2), then ???????

    Essentially, since the universe has shown no deviation from uniformity in the past, there is no way to even begin to guess what the universe would be in the next instant if it were to suddenly NOT be the same.

    I suppose we can call it pragmatism when we accept that the universe is uniform. In a way, though, it goes beyond pragmatism. (Remember, I’m writing for non-philosophers!) It’s pragmatic for me to grab a gallon of milk at the gas station, since it would be another 30 minutes out of my way to go to the store. To accept the only perception of reality that gives me any way to think about my own existence coherently? Pedantically, yes, it’s pragmatism. Effectively, it’s so obvious that it ought not need mention.

    I doubt many theists have thought about the consequences of their arguments (sic!) from the problem of induction. Your average ten year old can figure out that if there’s no way to be certain of anything in the future, there’s no way to be certain that God won’t wink out of existence in the next instant. We can no more trust God than anyone else, for how could even a God predict the future when the future is unpredictable? Asserting a God that somehow trumps the problem of induction only puts another step in the chain. It doesn’t solve anything, any more than saying God created the universe.

    The Problem of Induction, the Uniformity of Nature, and other such philosophical dilemmas are equally problematic for theists, if not more so. I’m actually glad you got me thinking in this direction. I probably should rewrite that part of this article to make that point.

    Posted by hambydammit | August 8, 2009, 5:46 pm

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