Black swans and blue tarantulas: ‘Without’ and ‘despite’ are not the same

Black swans and blue tarantulas: ‘Without’ and ‘despite’ are not the same December 10, 2012

Recently came across this quote from Aldous Huxley: “The deepest sin against the human mind is to believe things without evidence.”


Believing in things contrary to evidence is obviously far worse than believing in things despite a lack of evidence.

To believe that which has been disproved is always wrong. To believe that which cannot be proved could be wrong, but it also could be right. The distinction is not subtle, and it’s rather important.

Before leaping to another round of theist/atheist flame-wars over the distinction, keep in mind that this relates to many, many things other than God or religion. It is, for example, why the Fermi paradox is not called “Fermi’s Proof That We Are Alone in the Universe.” Or why one cannot say there’s no such thing as a black swan or a blue tarantula based only on never having seen one.

To believe that which has been disproved leads us to deny evidence, and that’s a Bad Thing. To believe in that which has not yet been proved or disproved leads us to seek evidence, and to follow wherever it leads. And that’s a Good Thing.

I’m also not sure that “believe” means what Huxley thinks it means. It doesn’t make sense to speak of believing things with evidence. If we have evidence for the belief, then there’s little point in merely calling it belief. The evidence is what makes it knowledge.

I believe in God. But I do not believe that the Earth is 4.5 billion or so years old — I know that.

As RJS recently wrote in response to Pat Robertson’s surprisingly sensible comments on the age of the Earth: “Arguing for a young earth is as ineffective as arguing that F≠ma, that energy is not conserved, or that a ball thrown into the air will not fall along an easily calculated path.”

We could try to blur that distinction between belief and knowledge with some kind of sliding scale between, at one end, an utter leap of faith, and, at the other end, rock-solid certainty. But few of us really think absolute certainty is ever a feasible claim about anything. And in any case, there would still be some sort of threshold of sufficient evidence below which one would still be committing Huxley’s supposed sin against the human mind. We can’t repair Huxley’s maxim by changing “to believe things without evidence” to “without enough evidence.” That’s just kicking the can down the road.

“To believe things without evidence,” isn’t necessarily wrong. Sometimes it’s necessarily necessary.

But to believe things contrary to overwhelming evidence? Yes, that’s a deep sin against the human mind.

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  • Worthless Beast

    *Not even bothering to read most of the responses*

    This post made me think to something I saw yesterday.  I was watching “Through the Wormhole” on Science Channel.  I find it kind of neat how Morgan Freeman’s soothing voice can explain to me the basics of mathematics and such that I know my brain is too hopelessly to ever understand on a real, high-eschelon academic level… 

    One of the episodes I was watching had to do with theories of extra-dimensions.  According to the program, there are different ideas upon the number of dimensions we have and it all has to do with the major physical forces and people trying to figure out why Gravity is so weak, yet can hold things together.  The hypothesis of some is that there are more dimensions than what we can percieve.  One scientist, however, has a radically different theory – that the “3 dimensions” that we percieve are actually illusions of a single dimension.  Now, these theories are religously netural – they’re science trying to figure out the shape of the universe, which is why they don’t make the news or cause fighting outside of acedemia and we dumb-dumbs have to learn about them on the Science Channel.  I bet they are fought over, however, simply because they are mutually-exclusive ideas. 

    And as far as hard evidence goes? For either?  Nada.  This is why the scienctists continue to search for evidence of their ideas.  Lack of evidence, in cases like this, promote curiosity.    I don’t see any of the scientists involved in “believing in things without evidence” are being called fools by anyone – perhaps it’s just because what they search for is ethically/morally/”meaning of life” neutral. *Shrug.*  

  • Gotchaye

    I generally like this post an awful lot, but with one big reservation.  I don’t think non-cognitivism about gods is promising.  Arguably it works for God, given omnipotence and so forth, but a spirit being isn’t at all inconceivable.  Materialism is conceivably wrong.  Stories about ghosts and psychics aren’t incomprehensible, even if they stipulate that any imaginable mechanical detector wouldn’t directly show anything odd going on.  I agree that we have no evidence of the sort we would expect to have if there was some interesting failure of materialism to be true, but such evidence is conceivable.

  • Gotchaye

     I’m not in fundamental physics, but in my own field (and probably every other science) there are lots of people who are proponents of particular explanations for poorly-understood phenomena.  And many of us will talk about what we “believe” is going on.  But we’re almost never using this to say that we’re almost certain that our view is the correct one; we’re mostly using it to say that this is our hunch, and maybe we think it’s 60% or 70% likely.  We’ll make $5 bets but not $1000 bets.  And above all we recognize that it’s not a settled question and there’s a real possibility that we will turn out to be wrong.

    I also think it’s wrong to say that these scientists are believing things without evidence.  Hunches are a big part of science.  You can’t be doing cutting-edge research without having developed a sense for how accurate your scientific intuition is, which brings in a lot of implicit information that you may not be able to just write down.

    And when someone does step over the line, and seems to be wildly off in their hunch – if someone is assigning substantial probability to something that other people think is ridiculous – they absolutely will be called a fool, by some and typically only in private conversations.  There are absolutely physicists who think that lots of other physicists are foolishly overconfident about certain theories.

  • AnonaMiss

    Mmm, I’ll concede on evidence for psychics being conceivable. 
    As for things not made of matter… “existing”, for lack of a better word, I guess it’s conceivable that it’s a Flatland scenario, with matter being a subset of all existence and our material nature making it impossible for us to detect the immaterial.

    …which from a Christian PoV would imply that Jesus was the circular subsection of the sphere dipping himself in. Was Flatland always about the Incarnation and I just didn’t notice?

  • Oh my gosh really?! That’s amazing, you’re the first one I’ve met! (Besides myself of course).

    Me too!  (1 in 200 odds, not surprising)  ;)

  • Worthless Beast

    I thought I’d add:  I like tarantuals.  They’re big and fuzzy – this makes me think they’re adorable. 

  • Freak

    Re: There is no way to prove the existence of god (Christian or otherwise), so having such a belief requires faith.

    Well, there’s no way to prove the existence of the deist version of God, but the Judeo-Christian version interacts concretely enough with the world to be provable.  If one area had all firstborns dying overnight (excepting firstborns of one particular race), I’d consider that fairly strong evidence.

  • Fusina

     I may be the only person in the US who never formed an opinion as to
    O.J. Simpson’s guilt or innocence. I wasn’t on the jury and I
    deliberately avoided following the trial, because I detest that type of
    media spectacle.

    Not the only… but I have friends who are lawyers. Learning from them about evidence and what they do made being on a jury fun though.

    I didn’t watch on tv either, mostly because I prefer my news over the radio–NPR preferably.

  • P J Evans

     That tarantula is absolutely gorgeous!

  • P J Evans

     My understanding is that they walked on the tentacled side. But they’re still way strange critters.

  • Baby_Raptor

    See, I came to the post fearing that someone had actually found a giant blue spider, and was relieved when I read that this was not so.

    I had a really bad experience with a spider bite about 2 years ago and have been completely terrified of the things since. 

  • Tricksterson

    Wouldn’t necessarily say that, the Evolution Wars  definitely predate Bob Jones.  In fact his grandfather, T. H. Huxley was known as “Darwin’s Bulldog”.

  • Tricksterson

    We’ll have to agree to disagree on that, I’m a recovering arachnaphobe.

  • Tricksterson

    Because they’re evil and they hate you.

  • Tricksterson

    Define giant, because that spider in the picture is real.

  • Beleester

    You say that belief without evidence leads us to seek evidence, but that doesn’t seem to be what faith is about.  Seeking evidence for the existence of God is almost guaranteed to end in failure, and each test you try and fail narrows down the possibility space for what God might be.  It’s the “God of the Gaps” problem – if your God is hiding in the gaps between bits of evidence, then what happens when those gaps get filled in?  Faith needs to handle stuff that’s completely outside the purview of science, or science will eventually make it obsolete.

  • Mary Kaye

    I had lunch with a spider researcher at an Evolution Society meeting many years ago.  She was interested in how enormous tropical orb spiders balance the desire to get bigger and the significant risk of dying during molt because the legs are just too hard to pry out of the old exoskeleton.  (They want to be big, she said, because then birds won’t eat them.)

    I complimented her on the picture of her holding an orb spider across her outspread hand–the spider was a lot bigger than her hand was–and asked, “Was the spider alive when you took that picture?”

    “Oh yes!  She laid 4000 eggs the next day!”

    I have met a shark researcher who finds sharks boring, and a fly researcher who is mildly put off by flies, but I’ve never met a spider researcher who was less than wildly enthusiastic about spiders.  They inspire strong emotions, for sure.

    For religious reasons I wear a silver and jet spider on a chain around my neck, and every once in a while I will wonder why someone is looking at me and cringing….


    (my bad about the last thread, I was just really fucking P.O.’d by that fucking Psalm)

    FWIW, I catch up on Slacktivist from most-recent to less so, so I hadn’t read the psalm yet when I read the post of yours I took exception to. I now have a better idea where you were coming from, because, yeargh that psalm.

  • …but am I the only one who thought the point of the post wasn’t about theology at all?

    Seriously, he said, “Before leaping to another round of theist/atheist flame-wars over the
    distinction, keep in mind that this relates to many, many things other
    than God or religion.” I read that to mean that Fred is talking about the distinction between belief without proof and belief despite proof – and NOT specifically focusing on what that means for theism vs. atheism. He in fact tried to head that off at the pass. I’m taking him at his word here.

  • Baby_Raptor

    Oh, I’m aware that a non-blue version of that spider in the picture exists. I was just glad to hear that there isn’t yet another type of spider in the world to be terrified of. 

  • stardreamer42

     That’s true. If miracles* really happened, that would be strong evidence for the existence of the Christian** God. The problem is that the only place where such miracles are recorded is… in the Bible, which leads directly to the circular-argument issue. And absent such miracles, there’s no proof.

    * By “miracle”, I mean “event which directly contravenes natural law”. Surviving for 3 weeks in the desert with no water and no access to water-storing plants would be a miracle. Falling to earth from low orbit without a parachute and surviving would be a miracle. Extremely-low-probability events are not miracles, because “unlikely” is not the same thing as “impossible”.

    ** My Jewish friends despise the term “Judeo-Christian”, so I have excised it from my vocabulary for the sake of courtesy. “Fake inclusiveness” is how they describe it.

  •  “Judeo-Christian” is a pretty transparent attempt from Christians to make us forget the long history of Christian antisemitism.

  • gpike

    What happens when you KNOW something based on evidence – but then that evidence is later proven to be faulty? 

  • Carstonio

    Recognizing the circular nature of the argument is valid as a reason not to believe in that god. It’s even more valid if a believer points to the text as supposed proof of the god’s existence. But it doesn’t conclusively disprove the god’s existence.

  • AnonaMiss

    Well yes, but as a number of us have objected in the thread, “proof” is moving the goalposts.

  • Carstonio

     And I don’t know why that would constitute moving the goalposts. The word proof doesn’t appear to have a valid meaning outside an empirical context.

    If humans didn’t exist to form beliefs, gods would still either exist or they wouldn’t. I’m not interested in the reasons why some people believe in gods, why some believe they don’t exist, and why others hold no belief either way, because that’s a private matter and none of my business. That’s also true for the relevance of those beliefs in those people’s lives. Wanting proof of the dueling propositions has nothing to do with questioning people’s beliefs, because the scrutiny is directed at the propositions themselves, to determine if one or the other qualifies as objective knowledge.

  • Jim Roberts

    Sorry, seems I wasn’t being clear there: is the best response to the notion of a deity, “I don’t know”?

  • Carstonio

    It’s the best answer for me, but that’s a matter of personal opinion. By “right” answer I mean one that’s factually accurate. I don’t have the knowledge of the right answer for the question of whether gods exist, so to avoid being wrong I take no position. I take the same position on the name of the human who first harnessed fire, or the name of the 87th US President.

  • Ross Thompson

    It’s not theist/atheist. It’s people who understand you can and even must believe things without proof/people who claim to think anyone who believes anything without proof is an idiot.

    No, not proof. Evidence. Re-read Fred’s post, if you’re confused.

    Of course everyone believes things without proof; proof only exists in mathematics and logic puzzles; not in the real world.

    I do have evidence that my wife loves me and that I won’t die in a nuclear inferno today, and so I feel comfortable believing that these things are true. If evidence surfaces that would cause me to re-evaluate those positions, I will.

    I don’t have evidence that my children won’t die in a car accident, but I also wouldn’t claim to believe that they won’t; rather I hope that that is the case.

    I accept that, in a scientific sense, even my very existence can’t be prooven (you might be imagining me, for all I know), but there’s sufficient evidence that I exist that I don’t feel uncomfortable believing that I actually do exist.

    And so I fall in love, I save for the future, I live. Not because I have proof that these things are worth doing, but because I have evidence that they’re worth doing. And where evidence is entirely lacking, because I hope they’re worth doing.

  • I think what Huxley objected to believe without any *reasons* backed in some way with evidence.  Hunchs are not based on nothing,  The person with a hunch has some reason for belief and some tentative evidence.  It may be too weak to support calling the hunch a hypothesis but it almost certainly does not exist in a knowledge vacuum.

    As to belief in God, in Huxley’s time the most commonly used evidence in support of the existence of God was the Bible, which Huxley rightly did not consider as valid empirical-derived evidence.  Indirect support came from a variety of arguments that could be shown (to Huxley’s satisfaction) to be invalid.  Given this, it would be irrational in Huxley’s mind to believe in God.

    Since Huxley’s time, physics has developed ideas of great strangeness in some of which a Creator could be inserted.  Many worlds concepts require belief in an infinite array of invisible universes without evidence.  One could replace many worlds with a single observable world in which Someone has a thumb on the scale.  Either model might be made to work for predictions, and it would be more of a matter of taste than empiricism as to which one you choose.

  • cminus

    Is Tom the boss?  Because, if so, any of his employees are reasonable suspects, given how he made them come in to work on a weekend. ;)

  • Chico33

    Sorry Fred, but nobody believes anything without evidence. You wouldn’t be a Christian without written accounts of the life of Jesus. Accepting these writings as evidence is the foundation of your faith.

  • EllieMurasaki

    What? Any month where the 11th’s a Monday, nobody in that scenario is working on a weekend.

  • stardreamer42

     Lack of proof is not the same thing as disproof, which is back up to what Fred said in the original post.

    The post to which I was replying said that the God of the Christian Bible was proactive enough in the world to provide proof of his existence. My reply, stripped of excess verbiage, boiled down to: “Yes, that’s true — but he doesn’t.”

    The Christians I know whose opinions I respect consider that to be a feature, not a bug — because if there were objective proof of God’s existence, what would be the point of faith? At that point it would become knowledge, as the orbit of the Earth around the Sun is knowledge; it doesn’t take any kind of faith to believe in that. Now OTOH, if there were conclusive proof of the non-existence of God, then they’d be delusional, as I said in my very first comment.

    There are things that I believe in the absence of proof, but they’re not religious things. One of them is that there is intelligent life in the Universe elsewhere than on Earth — but that’s because I choose to believe that the entire Universe is not a staggering statistical anomaly, which it would be if this planet were the sole repository of intelligent life.

  • cminus

    If the 11th was a Monday, then the 10th was a Sunday and the 9th was a Saturday. If the 9th was a Saturday, then the 16th was also a Saturday, and it was on the 16th when Tom and Harry got into their third loud shouting match, which required bystanders had to pull them apart. Harry was apparently upset about missing college football.

  • EllieMurasaki

    …oh. Apparently I cannot numbers today.

  • stardreamer42

    If you’re a rational person, you change your mind. If you’re not a rational person, you become an anti-vaxxer.

    (It’s not quite as easy as that, of course. This is why there’s a common aphorism to the effect that major advances in science often have to wait for the old guard to die off. When you’ve invested a lot of personal energy into a particular position, it’s hard to admit that you were wrong even in the face of new evidence.)

  • Carstonio


    The post to which I was replying said that the God of the Christian
    Bible was proactive enough in the world to provide proof of his

    And while I agree, I caution against treating the Bible’s claims as either proof or disproof of gods in general. I’ve seen people on both sides make that mistake.

    if there were objective proof of God’s existence, what would be the point of faith?

    Those Christians seem to imply that faith is required or necessary. If their god exists whether or not people believe in its existence, I don’t know what difference human belief would make for that god.

  • AnonaMiss

    The OP was about beliefs without evidence and you talked about beliefs which can’t be disproven which I think is pretty clearly moving the goalposts – unless I misunderstood the context of your post.
    And anyway, requiring conclusive disproof of something before you can consider its non-existence “objective knowledge” is ludicrous. Blah blah Flying Spaghetti Monster Santa Claus The Tooth Fairy Russel’s Teapot. There’s rarely such a thing as conclusive proof (or disproof) of anything in the real world. Afaik the only propositions which can be conclusively proven or disproven are those which resolve to tautologies (e.g. an object is shaped like itself), paradoxes (e.g. an object not shaped like itself), or nonsense (e.g. magenta disrespect).Interestingly, if proof or disproof is required for objective knowledge, you can objectively know almost nothing about the physical world (Last Thursdayism/The Matrix/”What if everyone is a brain in a jar?!”), while still knowing that an omnipotent being can’t exist (paradox) and that there’s no such thing as an acute crocodile (nonsense). I’d argue that the doctrine of the Trinity falls into one of those two categories as well, though I’m not sure whether one person at the same time being three people qualifies as paradox or nonsense – which, if you grant it either classification, means that you can be more sure of the non-existence of the Trinity than you can be of the existence of your own mother!OT, coming up with complete nonsense that isn’t immediately metaphor-ized by the mind is a fun and challenging exercise. I think my favorite I’ve thought of so far is an Ordovician unkindness.

  • AnonaMiss


    That’s it, I’m going to start physically putting HTML line break tags into my every post.

  • Carstonio

    My point about “objective knowledge” is that facts exist whether or not anyone recognizes them as facts, and that they would exist even if there were no humans to try to prove or disprove them.

    And my reference to “conclusive proof” wasn’t intended as an absolute. I was really trying to make a distinction between lack of belief in gods and belief in the non-existence of gods – the latter involves a degree of certainty.  I’ve encountered too many anti-theists who play a gotcha game that assumes that the lack of evidence for gods settles the matter. I see a vital distinction between saying that godly existence is  extremely unlikely and saying that it’s impossible. The first one refuses to rule out the possibility of gods, however remote the possibility.

  • For religious reasons I wear a silver and jet spider on a chain around my neck, and every once in a while I will wonder why someone is looking at me and cringing….

    I’m rather fond of spiders myself, but if I suspected someone of being a worshipper of Lolth, I might cringe, too.  What religion has a black and silver spider as a sacred symbol?

  • And do so while still excluding Muslims, which is the kind of unatural division that would be disallowed in cladistic taxonomy (sort of like having a family “Pongidae,” common name “great apes,” that includes orangutans, gorillas, chimps, bonobos, but not humans).  We could say “Abrahamic God” and “Abrahamic religions,” but that would mean legitimizing Islam as part of the same tradition.

  • EllieMurasaki

    I recall Mary Kaye saying she’s Pagan and she stopped wearing her pentacle in favor of that spider because the spider doesn’t get her funny looks on account of being a devil-worshipping witch and the pentacle does. (Sorry if I’m remembering wrong.)

  • Ah.  Well, being mistaken by gamers for a fellow gamer with an excessive fascination with the fictional culture of the Drow is probably a lot less common, and less dangerous, than being mistaken by Christians for a witch.

    It occurs to me that a spider might be associated with Kali, since she’s generally portrayed as having two legs and six arms.  That wouldn’t be very reassuring either, though, given the nature of some of her worshippers.

  • James Simmons

    As good an example of believing things contrary to evidence as you are likely to see:

    I used to be associated with these guys.  That was thirty years ago.  I would have thought that by now they would have come to terms with the fact that their scripture’s description of the universe has more in common with Terry Pratchet’s Discworld novels than it does with the universe we live in.

    A lot of intelligent people admire the Bhagavad Gita, but they might not be welcomed in today’s Hare Krishna movement.

  • AnonymousSam

    Good luck. Sometimes Disqus eats the HTML and renders it as <br>.

  • AnonymousSam

    Yuck. And I thought the video series about how the sun really does revolve around the Earth was bad.

  • Consumer Unit 5012

     I went to college with a Krishna Creationist.  Amazingly smart guy, one of our class valedictorians.  I spent many futile but entertaining hours arguing with him over the  school network.  He’s my personal Exhibit A* that being smart doesn’t make anyone any less likely to believe crank things, it just makes them better at defending them.

    * (To be honest, he’s Exhibit B.  _I’M_ Exhibit A.  :D )

  • Mau de Katt

    Oooo, another blue species of tarantula!  And that one is even bluer than the Cobalt Blue (Haplopelma lividum), which in spite of being an aggressive &psychotic beastie, is popular in the tarantulas-as-pets world.