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

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

Baloney.

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.

  • flat

    I am gonna sit back say nothing and watch the flame wars

  • hidden_urchin

    Before it starts, can I say how exciting that photo was? The post title promised me a blue tarantula and there’s a blue tarantula! Right there!

    That’s the high point of my day.

  • http://accidental-historian.typepad.com/ Geds

     Then I guess I’ll start the flame war.

    That’s the high point of my day.

    No it wasn’t!

  • http://mordicai.livejournal.com Mordicai

    “Believing in things contrary to evidence is obviously far worse than believing in things despite a lack of evidence.”
    I mean– trying to skip the whole flame war thing– I think that is a very sensible statement, right?  Though I guess once you introduce levels of action– like what you DO based on your beliefs– things get complicated again.

  • Carstonio

    Rats, I was hoping the blue tarantula was radioactive, to provide the origin for a new superhero…

    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 confused. If the proposition hasn’t been proven or disproven, then why take a position that equates to it being proven or disproven? Belief amounts to taking a position on an issue. If not a rejection of the possibility of contrary evidence, then at least a willingness to reject the possibility. Fred’s point might be more accurate if we were talking about suspecting something to be true or false, because that’s not the same as committing to a belief.

  • Michael Pullmann

    Huxley’s maxim really moves beyond atheism and into empiricism, and (what I consider) a rather radical empiricism at that. To say that belief without empirical evidence is a *sin* is, after all, rather religious language. And then you get into the assumption that empirical truth is the only kind…

    I’ve found that, at least on the Internet, many self-professed atheists and rationalists are really more properly termed empiricists of this radical stripe.

    *puts on asbestos helmet*

  • AnonaMiss

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

    And this is where this atheist would respectfully disagree with you. At least, with the version of “belief” I understand you to be using here. It’s a semantically overloaded word.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=30319652 Tim Lehnerer

    It is my sincere hope that I never see a blue tarantula. Especially, say, in the shower.

  • Carstonio

    Dumb question – why wouldn’t a belief formed despite a lack of evidence amount to speculation instead?

  • Jim Roberts

    “If the proposition hasn’t been proven or disproven, then why take a position that equates to it being proven or disproven? ”
    Because sometimes that’s the only way to move forward. Really, this doesn’t apply all that well to most empirical matters – one shouldn’t simply assert an unfortunately high temperature at which paper burns and then trustingly throw a lit match into a crowded library because you trust that assertion. But in personal relationships, I really only have my beliefs and some anecdotal evidence that anyone actually thinks I’m worth spending time with. The rest is belief.

  • PurpleAardvaark

    Cut Aldous some slack — he never met a graduate of Bob Jones/Liberty so the notion that anyone would fail to accept evidence was entirely beyond his ken.

  • Morilore

    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 don’t understand.  How does this work?  I would think that believing without evidence either way would lead inevitably to cherry-picking.

  • Carstonio

    But in personal relationships, I really only have my beliefs and some
    anecdotal evidence that anyone actually thinks I’m worth spending time
    with. The rest is belief.

    Would you explain? That sounds like you’re talking about value propositions, where the concept of proof doesn’t apply.

  • TheDarkArtist

    I love tarantulas, and spiders in general. Sure, some are scary looking, but I think that many species are cute with their little eyes and fangs and whatnot. They’re like “hey dude, what’s up? Let’s chill, I’ve got 8 legs.”

  • Jim Roberts

    I think we may be using different definitions for the word “proof” and “belief,” so perhaps we should start there anyway. The best working definition I can come up with for “proof” that a realtionship is real is something like, “something that induces certainty or establishes validity.” That’s Merriam Webster, if you want that. While I choose to interpret friends calling me to spend time with me, my children hugging when I get home and my wife actually having kids with me as signs that I am worth spending time with, those aren’t proofs in the more empirical sense.

    How are you defining, “proof?” What word would you use to  define the concept I’m talking about?

  • Carstonio

    The context for my point is that there are two types of propositions, ones of fact or purported fact and ones of value. The first type is descriptive and the second type is prescriptive. I use the word proof only for the former, and I don’t know what word I would choose for the latter. Whether a specific person is worth spending time with is ultimately a subjective matter of opinion.

    The assertion that gods exist is a proposition of purported fact, and so is the assertion that gods don’t exist. This type of assertion is either accurate in inaccurate. Whether such gods deserve worship is a question of value.

  • The_L1985

    Likewise. Tarantulas are even better, really, because they’re fuzzy spiders. ::3

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    This is an excellent post. 

    Before leaping to another round of theist/atheist flame-wars

    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.

    The reason the second group is “claim to think” is that they themselves do believe things without proof. They have no proof they won’t drop dead from an unknown heart condition right… now. They have no proof that someone won’t drop a nuclear weapon on our heads this instant. They have no proof that anyone loves them, as this is an absolutely impossible thing to prove. (Some people therefore claim there is no such thing as love, but that is a different, if overlapping, group of pitiable people.) No proof they won’t die in childbirth; no proof their spouses are faithful; no proof their children won’t die in traffic; no proof they won’t choke on a Crispix. 

    And yet, the second group goes on living pretty well. They save for the future, they fall in love, they live their lives. The fact that it is impossible to prove a negative hasn’t penetrated their skulls, but they seem to do pretty okay anyway.

    The second group also includes a very large number of theists and New Agers, who keep trying to prove there is something supernatural in the world, and it is precisely this supernatural thing that they happen to believe in, and they have tons of evidence, but anyone who believes in that other supernatural thing is an idiot.

  • Carstonio

     While I agree with your general point, the items in your third paragraphs don’t seem to qualify as beliefs. Those positions weren’t deliberately chosen and don’t involve a degree of certainty. They’re more like things that most people take for granted.

  • Freak

    Re: 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 disagree with this.  For example, suppose that it has been shown:
    1)  On the 11th of the month, coworkers Tom and Harry got into a loud shouting match.
    2)  On the 14th of the month, Tom and Harry got into another loud shouting match.
    3)  On the 16th of the month, Tom and Harry got into a third loud shouting match; bystanders had to pull them apart.
    4)  On the 19th, Tom is murdered in his office.

    I’d call these statements evidence that Harry murdered Tom, though I wouldn’t classify it as knowledge that Harry murdered Tom.

  • Jim Roberts

    I see better where you’re coming from. Is it possible to have a proposition of fact for which there is no definite answer? And, in that case, what is then the appropriate response? If you have a definite answer as to the existence or non-existence of gods, what is it, and how did you come to it?

  • Jim Roberts

    I love spiders of all types, but, yeah, tarantulas are awesome. In every sense of the word.

  • Kiba

    Yick. Spider. I do not like them at all. Not at all. That sucker would have me hyperventilating in a corner begging someone to kill it or make it go away. 

  • Carstonio

    That qualifies as evidence, but it’s not conclusive or irrefutable. Harry would be first on a list of suspects, but the murder could have been committed by someone else with a different motive. So I would advise against believing that Harry committed the crime if there isn’t conclusive or irrefutable evidence.

    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.

  • Carstonio

    Is it possible to have a proposition of fact for which there is no definite answer?

    Yes. That was my point concerning the existence or non-existence of gods. I don’t have any evidence for either proposition, so while it doesn’t seem likely that such beings exist, my only real answer is “I don’t know.”

  • Morilore

    I hope you realize that “proof” and “evidence” are not the same thing.

  • Jim Roberts

    Okay, so that’s your response to the question – do you think that’s the only legitimate answer to the question of their existence?

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

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

    Absolutely agreed. Both that it’s true, and that it’s obvious.

    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.

    Agreed that, when it happens, it’s a Good Thing.

    But believing in that which has not yet been proved or disproved does not necessarily lead us to seek evidence. Sometimes, for example, it leads us to complacently ignore evidence, or to give up opportunities to pursue evidence.

    As for the rest of this… mostly, it strikes me as a semantic distinction. Do I “know” something, or “believe” it, or “confidently believe” it, or “expect” it, or etc? I don’t quite see why it matters. If I want to speak precisely, I do best to assert a confidence interval… maybe I’m 95% confident that the Earth is ~4.5 billion years old, or 99.99% confident, or whatever it is.

    Ultimately, the important question is what thresholds of confidence I require to justify various actions with respect to a belief, and whether those thresholds are met by the evidence I’m aware of.

  • Mary Kaye

    There’s this fossil animal, _Hallucigenia_, from the Burgess Shale.  It’s been extinct for a really long time, and it looks nothing like any animal living today (Google it to see what I mean).  It has two distinct sides so presumably one was the top and the other was the bottom–but which?  Did it walk on its tentacles, or its spines?

    This question certainly has an answer.  We may never know what it is, though.  If I believe that _Hallucigenia_ walked on its tentacles, there are some plausible reasons for that belief, but it’s *very* far from proven.  I could also just not know which side was up.  I think both positions are defensible.  I’m not actually a paleontologist but if I were I might find it useful to have a belief about this so as to direct my thinking to good ways to test that belief.

    I’m trying to get a grant to study a pre-cancer condition.  I have a definite theory about how these cells do or don’t develop into cancer in different patients, but it is far from proven–that’s why I want the grant.  I personally find it much easier to go forward with a definite theory and try to support or refute it than to go forward in complete uncertainty.  So for me, the unproven theory is a useful experiment-generating tool.  I am not ashamed of believing that the cancers come from a single cell with a destabilized genome, even though I know this may be wrong–it’s someplace to start, anyway.

    “Don’t believe anything till it’s proven” is not a useful rule for me.  It makes organizing my thoughts and designing experiments much harder.  “Be willing to change your beliefs when the evidence arrives” is a much better rule for me.

  • stardreamer42

    Cute blue tarantula is cute!

    IMO, “belief without evidence” is the essence of faith, while “belief despite evidence” is delusion. There is no way to prove the existence of god (Christian or otherwise), so having such a belief requires faith.  That the Earth revolves around the Sun is observable fact, and hence not subject to faith.

    Shorter version of the above: “Facts require no faith; faith requires no facts.”

    Unfortunately, there’s a whole subgroup of Christians who have completely inverted the common definitions of “belief” and “knowledge”, and will tell you in absolute sincerity that you only believe in evolution, while they know that Creationism is The Truth. (This is the primary context in which the inversion comes up, although I’ve seen it once or twice in other areas.)

  • Freak

    And I never said it was conclusive or irrefutable.  The whole point was that it was evidence that was far from conclusive.  But it is evidence.

    I wouldn’t expect police to be able to get a conviction on such evidence.  I’d certainly expect them to be able a court order to fingerprint Harry, and possibly get a search warrant on that evidence.

  • Another Matt

    The reason the second group is “claim to think” is that they themselves do believe things without proof. They have no proof they won’t drop dead from an unknown heart condition right… now. They have no proof that someone won’t drop a nuclear weapon on our heads this instant. They have no proof that anyone loves them, as this is an absolutely impossible thing to prove. (Some people therefore claim there is no such thing as love, but that is a different, if overlapping, group of pitiable people.) No proof they won’t die in childbirth; no proof their spouses are faithful; no proof their children won’t die in traffic; no proof they won’t choke on a Crispix.

    But none of these things amounts to a belief without evidence. I have evidence that my heart is in good condition (having recently had a physical), I have plenty of evidence that my wife loves me (she tells me hourly), and I have plenty of evidence I won’t choke on a Crispix in the next week (I don’t plan on buying any). All of this could change with new evidence, but Fred is talking about belief with no evidence at all.Meanwhile, proof and evidence are totally different things. There’s no such thing as a proof of something empirical, so the best we can do is move forward on the basis of available evidence and confidence in that evidence and what may be inferred from it.

  • hidden_urchin

    Shower I’m OK with. Bed? Not so much.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jrandyowens Randy Owens

    Rats, I was hoping the blue tarantula was radioactive, to provide the origin for a new superhero…

    Is there any evidence that it isn’t radioactive?

  • Another Matt

    I should say that it’s perfectly rational go forward with a hypothesis in the absence of evidence, but a hypothesis does not amount to a belief.
    Also, it’s important to distinguish between not believing that something exists and believing that it in fact does not. If you were to posit an island populated by only and all the characters from the My Little Pony animated series, I would require some evidence before I believed that such an island exists. There isn’t any evidence that would allow one to conclude that such an island does not exist — it’s fine for me to proceed on the hypothesis that it does not, but I don’t think I would say I believed it didn’t, just that I didn’t believe that it did.

  • TheRidger

    The word “believe” is a dangerous one to use; it’s far too ambiguous. I remember hearing a tv reporter say, back when those Amish girls were shot, “The Amish don’t believe in helicopters and cell phones, but now they’re depending on them.” This statement is nonsense unless you accept “believe in” to mean “acknowledge the reality of but deny the usefulness and/or moral value of”. (Which of course is why “I don’t believe in [name of god here]” is such a loaded statement. And that is clearly not the meaning to be used in Fred’s “believe in things without evidence”. 

  • Random_Lurker

    This whole argument is a non-starter.  How often does anyone take up a belief without evidence? Never.  Just because you don’t believe their evidence is valid, does not mean it doesn’t exist.  Or, at least, that the perception of it exists.

    Yes, the is the whole subjective-experience thing, or sometimes called the spiritual-experience.  People with religious belief DO HAVE evidence for them… the evidence is unverifiable, and thus may be wrong or right, just like the belief itself.  But it does not make the person who holds it irrational.

    Thus the issue is more correctly framed as a discussion of what forms of evidence should be acceptable- objective, testable evidence as used by science? Or personal, subjective evidence as well?  The answer seems clear to me -by definition, subjective evidence cannot be used to convince or compel other people, but may be valid or not according to the individual- but arguing that someone has taken up a belief with a lack of evidence is disingenuous.  What you are saying is that they don’t have evidence that *you approve of*.

    The point about believing things that are CONTRARY to evidence stands firmly though.  On this kind of subject, such as the age of the Earth, Evolution’s connection to morality, whether Dinosaurs and humans lived together, and other specious creationist arguments, the verdict is very clearly -and provably-  not in their favor.

  • Random_Lurker

     Actually, it very likely IS radioactive.  If living organisms weren’t, then radiocarbon dating wouldn’t work.

    It’s all a matter of degeree… :)

  • Water_Bear

    Trying to avoid causing further flame (my bad about the last thread, I was just really fucking P.O.’d by that fucking Psalm) just provide a calm counterpoint;

    Most of the atheists I know are scientists or in training to become scientists, myself included, so it comes with a lot of different terminology and a different way of framing these sorts of questions. The scientific method is essentially Bayesian Inference in action, so (ideally) “knowledge” and “belief” don’t  factor into it; you have hypothesis, evidence, and eventually your theoretical model but there is never certainty, just an increased confidence in your model.

    Also, as others have noted, belief is an awful word to use here. Personally, I try not to believe anything, but to always have an appropriate degree of uncertainty. I don’t succeed, I’m only human, but that effort to try and limit my cognitive biases is absolutely vital for the work I do. I also see skepticism as a virtue to be cultivated, but ironically rejecting normative ethics means I can’t really demand other people to do it except out of a sort of vague “it’s more efficient!”

  • AnonaMiss

    OK, now that I don’t have a meeting to get to I can reread this with a little better comprehension. 

    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.

    This is total bullshit. I’m sorry Fred but it is. One piece of evidence does not knowledge make. By reading “evidence” as “sufficient evidence” here, you’re committing the very error you decry later in the post. Huxley’s statement as written reads to me more like “The deepest sin against the human mind is to believe things without any evidence.”While it’s still true that believing against evidence is worse, I think the fact that you recognize theism in Huxley’s statement is a little revealing.Then there’s the issue of the semantic overloading of “belief”. Belief that my car is still in the parking garage is very different from belief in world peace – and depending on the person in question, the belief in the supernatural may fit in either of those categories or another entirely.I assume my car is still in the parking garage, because that’s where I left it and I have no reason to suspect someone moved it. Evidence and lack of counter-evidence.I trust my family loves me, because they tell me so, because they act like it, and because it’s not unreasonable that family should love me. Evidence and lack of counter-evidence.I trust that Antarctica exists, because I’ve seen pictures, and because I have no reason to suspect the people who have told me of Antarctica are lying, mistaken, and/or doctoring pictures. Evidence and lack of counter-evidence.I trust when my boyfriend tells me he’s had a bad day, because humans are genetically predisposed to tell the truth* if they wouldn’t gain anything by lying, I have no reason to suspect that he would gain anything by lying, and having a bad day is an entirely reasonable thing to exist. Evidence and lack of counter-evidence.I assume that the beverage in my cup is coffee, because it tasted like coffee the last time I took a sip of it, and I have no reason to believe that my tongue is faulty. Evidence and lack of counter-evidence.I trust that the colorblindness tests I fail really do make some sort of numbers or shapes or something, even though I can’t make heads or tails of them, because I have no reason to believe that people are lying to me, and because the scientific explanations I’ve read of colorblindness seem reasonable and consistent with my own experiences. (I include this as an example where what I believe contradicts my lived experience, e.g. what level of evidence is required to override what I see with my own two eyes.) Evidence, and sufficient counter-evidence to override it.Someone may hope for world peace, or think it’s a good cause, or even think it’s possible. Hope isn’t really a proposition which can have evidence for or against, it’s a statement of what you value and desire. Thinking it’s a good cause, skipping the analysis of what makes something “good” and just going with a strict utilitarian definition, evidence does point to world peace being a good thing because it would remove all the suffering of war, though of course this is potentially falsifiable if it turns out that, say, an Ancient Alien god of war will get pissed at us and destroy the human race if we stop fighting. Thinking it’s possible, well, the person who “believes in world peace” in that way would have a heck of a time convincing me, but presumably if their belief is correct there’s evidence behind that belief.Religious belief seems to me usually to be the “trust” kind. It’s definitely not the “hope” kind, because “believing in” religious things is generally a statement that you think they exist, and no matter how deeply someone might believe in world peace, I don’t think they’d go so far as to say that world peace exists. You** trust that religious thing X exists either because you have interacted with it, or because someone told you about it and you don’t think they were mistaken or lying. Which, fair enough, there’s no evidence otherwise.But trusting in the existence of gods? In souls? In the extension of consciousness beyond the death and decay of the brain?What would it even mean for something to exist without mass (or at least energy equivalent to/interchangeable with mass)? And if something did exist without mass or photons, how would it interact with matter? And it’s a person, somehow? What would it mean to be a person without matter? To have desires or intentions without a brain to generate them or photons to conduct them? The words are placed together in syntactically correct sentences but semantically, “person with no mass” is like “magenta disrespect”:  it’s words on completely different planes of meaning mashed together, which your brain tries to reconcile into a concept even though the phrase is nonsense, because dammit the phrases are syntactically correct and our language centers desperately need syntactically correct phrases to mean things.If something is semantically nonsense, that’s damn good evidence that it doesn’t exist. God isn’t a black swan or a blue tarantula. God is a gaseous swan, a blue hunger. Poetic, potentially inspiring, and ultimately the product of our brains’ inability to accept that some things have no meaning.* This is a necessary prerequisite to the evolution of communication in any species. If communication were not default-truthful, there would be no reason to listen to the individuals using it, and it would cease to be communication.**If anyone has a better way of explaining what it means to you personally to “believe” in religious thing X and you’d like me to address it, please let me know; I’m basing this only upon my own previous experiences as a religious believer.

  • AnonaMiss

    …Disqus y u eat my line breaks :(

  • AnonaMiss

    Trying again. Sorry if the line breaks still don’t occur, but as an anonymous user there’s no “Preview” or “Edit” function…

    OK, now that I don’t have a meeting to get to I can reread this with a little better comprehension.

    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.

    This is total bullshit. I’m sorry Fred but it is. One piece of evidence does not knowledge make. By reading “evidence” as “sufficient evidence” here, you’re committing the very error you decry later in the post. Huxley’s statement as written reads to me more like “The deepest sin against the human mind is to believe things without any evidence.”While it’s still true that believing against evidence is worse, I think the fact that you recognize theism in Huxley’s statement is a little revealing.Then there’s the semantic overloading of “belief”. Belief that my car is still in the parking garage is very different from belief in world peace – and depending on the person in question, the belief in the supernatural may fit in either of those categories or another entirely.I assume my car is still in the parking garage, because that’s where I left it and I have no reason to suspect someone moved it. Evidence and lack of counter-evidence.I trust that Antarctica exists, because I’ve seen pictures, and because I have no reason to suspect the people who have told me of Antarctica are lying, mistaken, and/or doctoring pictures. Evidence and lack of counter-evidence.I trust when my boyfriend tells me he’s had a bad day, because humans are genetically predisposed to tell the truth* if they wouldn’t gain anything by lying, I have no reason to suspect that he would gain anything by lying, and having a bad day is an entirely reasonable thing to exist. Evidence and lack of counter-evidence.I assume that the beverage in my cup is coffee, because it tasted like coffee the last time I took a sip of it, and I have no reason to believe that my tongue is faulty. I trust that the colorblindness tests I fail really do make some sort of numbers or shapes or something, even though I can’t make heads or tails of them, because I have no reason to believe that people are lying to me, and because the scientific explanations I’ve read of colorblindness seem reasonable and consistent with my own experiences. (I include this as an example where what I believe contradicts my lived experience, e.g. what level of evidence is required to override what I see with my own two eyes.)Someone may hope for world peace, or think it’s a good cause, or even think it’s possible. Hope isn’t really a proposition which can have evidence for or against, it’s a statement of what you value and desire. Thinking it’s a good cause, skipping the analysis of what makes something “good” and just going with a strict utilitarian definition, evidence does point to world peace being a good thing because it would remove all the suffering of war, though of course this is potentially falsifiable if it turns out that, say, an Ancient Alien god of war will get pissed at us and destroy the human race if we stop fighting. Thinking it’s possible, well, the person who “believes in world peace” in that way would have a heck of a time convincing me, but presumably if their belief is correct there’s evidence behind that belief.Religious belief seems to me usually to be the “trust” kind. It’s definitely not the “hope” kind, because “believing in” religious things is generally a statement that you think they exist, and no matter how deeply someone might believe in world peace, I don’t think they’d go so far as to say that world peace exists. You** trust that religious thing X exists either because you have interacted with it, or because someone told you about it and you don’t think they were mistaken or lying. Which, fair enough, there’s no evidence otherwise.But trusting in the existence of gods? In souls? In the extension of consciousness beyond the death and decay of the brain?What would it even mean to exist, without mass (or at least energy equivalent to/interchangeable with mass)? Just thinking about that makes my brain hurt. And if something did exist without mass or photons, how would it interact with matter? There’s no evidence that matter can be interacted with by anything other than matter and photons. And it’s a person, somehow? What would it mean to be a person without matter? To have desires or intentions without a brain to generate them or photons to conduct them? These words are placed together in syntactically correct sentences but semantically, “person with no mass” is like “magenta disrespect”:  it’s words on completely different planes of meaning mashed together, which your brain tries to reconcile into a concept even though the phrase is nonsense, because dammit the phrases are syntactically correct and our language centers desperately need syntactically correct phrases to mean things.If something is semantically nonsense, that’s damn good evidence that it doesn’t exist. God isn’t a black swan or a blue tarantula. God is a gaseous swan, a blue hunger. Poetic, potentially inspiring, and ultimately the imaginary product of our brains’ inability to accept meaninglessness.* This is a necessary prerequisite to the evolution of communication in any species. If communication were not default-truthful, there would be no reason to listen to the individuals using it, and it would cease to be communication.**If anyone has a better way of explaining what it means to you personally to “believe” in religious thing X and you’d like me to address it, please let me know; I’m basing this only upon my own previous experiences as a religious believer.

  • Another Matt

    AnonaMiss, your reply reminds of something I heard somewhere (but I can’t remember where, nor can I quote it accurately — maybe someone else will know):

    “The true test of omnipotence would not be ‘can God make a rock so big he couldn’t lift it,’ but rather, ‘can God make a rock so purple that you couldn’t lift it?’”

    Also, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colorless_green_ideas_sleep_furiously

  • http://heathencritique.wordpress.com/ Ruby_Tea

    I trust that the colorblindness tests I fail really do make some sort of numbers or shapes or something, even though I can’t make heads or tails of them, because I have no reason to believe that people are lying to me, and because the scientific explanations I’ve read of colorblindness seem reasonable and consistent with my own experiences. (I include this as an example where what I believe contradicts my lived experience, e.g. what level of evidence is required to override what I see with my own two eyes.)

    Color blind chick solidarity fist bump!

    *fist bump*

  • http://heathencritique.wordpress.com/ Ruby_Tea

    Trying to avoid causing further flame (my bad about the last thread, I was just really fucking P.O.’d by that fucking Psalm) just provide a calm counterpoint

    Actually, Water_Bear, this post makes me even more inclined to agree with you: it really does feel like anti-atheist week.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

     But I can tell you here and nantula, I’d rather see than be one.

  • Carstonio

    Again, if it’s far from conclusive, then I see no reason to hold a belief, which is a type of conclusion.

  • Carstonio

    Not sure what you mean by a legitimate answer. There’s only one right answer, and I don’t know what it is.

  • AnonaMiss

    @Ruby_Tea:disqus Oh my gosh really?! That’s amazing, you’re the first one I’ve met! (Besides myself of course).
    @b95bc3fd3debafca54c81f3a5ada15dd:disqus  Yes, my bachelor’s in linguistics is showing in this post!

  • Gotchaye

    FWIW, the standard meaning of “believe” in the epistemology literature is, more-or-less, “thinks is true”, with perhaps some caveats about likelihoods and mindfulness and so forth.  The starting point for a lot of epistemology is the notion that knowledge is justified and true belief (although a great deal of the historical work in the field is about picking this apart and suggesting more accurate-to-use definitions that still capture basically the same idea).  So there’s a lot of overlap between belief and knowledge; hopefully most of our beliefs are knowledge.

    But as others have noted, we use “believe” in speech differently.  I think this is largely because the philosophical distinction between believing and knowing is only apparent to an observer – under most theories, a rational person believes that he or she knows every particular thing he or she believes, because we think that, for each individual belief, that belief is both justified and true.  So in practice we use the phrase “I believe” as a hedge, to imply less certainty than “I know”, and also to say a variety of other things that don’t really have much to do with thinking that claims are true.  But in talking about other people we often come back to the philosophical distinction between believing and knowing.


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