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.

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  • 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!

  • P J Evans

     That tarantula is absolutely gorgeous!

  • 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

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

  • 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. 

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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?

  • 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.”

  • 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?

  • Carstonio

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

  • 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.

  • 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?

  • 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… :)

  • 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.

  • hidden_urchin

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

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

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

  • Carstonio

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

  • 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.

  • 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”.

  • 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.

  • 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.”

  • The_L1985

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

  • Jim Roberts

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

  • Tricksterson

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

  • 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.

  • Morilore

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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Carstonio

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

  • 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.

  • 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. ;)

  • EllieMurasaki

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

  • 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.

  • 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. 

  • 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.

  • P J Evans

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

  • 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

    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.

  • 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.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_RHLJILNCJRFGBX3RXSRO3QDSZY Steven

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

  • http://profiles.google.com/fader2011 Alex Harman

    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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • AnonymousSam

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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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
    existence.

    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.

  • 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.

  • 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!”

  • 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://www.nicolejleboeuf.com/index.php Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little

     

    (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.

  • 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.

  • 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*

  • 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!

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

    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)  ;)

  • 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.

  • 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?

  • Tricksterson

    Because they’re evil and they hate you.

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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’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.

  • Worthless Beast

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

  • 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….

  • http://profiles.google.com/fader2011 Alex Harman

    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?

  • 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.)

  • http://profiles.google.com/fader2011 Alex Harman

    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.

  • http://www.nicolejleboeuf.com/index.php Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little

    …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.

  • gpike

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

  • 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.)

  • http://www.facebook.com/mike.alexander.5473 Mike Alexander

    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.

  • 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.

  • James Simmons

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

    http://krishna.org/did-man-really-walk-on-the-moon/

    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

    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. 

    http://www.bighairyspiders.com/cobalt.shtml


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