On the Primacy of Nondisprovable Hypotheses, Part I

On the Primacy of Nondisprovable Hypotheses, Part I February 22, 2016

The subgenre of philosophy called epistemology is concerned with what we know—or think we know—and how we know it, which, of course, enlarges into the issues of the nature of consciousness, the differences and relationships between knowledge and belief, and the nature of reality—insofar as we are aware of reality, as distinct from what we think is reality.

Lately there have been some well-publicized “debates” between proponents of doctrinaire positions on “science” and Creationism. These exchanges have been as inconclusive as when stupid people yell at each other on the Jerry Springer show, largely because those who call themselves scientists often believe that their philosophy about science is itself scientific, whereas those who espouse religious faiths often believe that some statements of facts are doctrines of their faith. Such controversies generally sort themselves out given enough time, but meanwhile embarrassing mistakes can happen, as when Saint(?) Robert Bellarmine, in his capacity as Grand Inquisitor, placed Galileo under house arrest for asserting that the Earth revolves around the Sun or, far worse, when Giordano Bruno was burned alive for proposing there might be life on planets around other stars.

Science does not consist of the knowledge gathered by use of the scientific method, which Francis Bacon invented by borrowing the basic concept of disproving propositions from a Muslim philosopher. Science is the scientific method, period, which method can be applied to the study of anything, by continually doubting that one has arrived at 100 percent certainty about the truth of any statement. The Creationists reject what they call Darwin’s “theory of evolution,” which is a complete misnomer.

The first theory of evolution was proposed by Thales, around 600 BCE, when he suggested that life may have originated in the sea and then evolved into land-based life. Another is proposed in the first chapter of Genesis, formulated in terms of the most advanced philosophy of that time, the Mesopotamian system focused on the “visible gods,” a system now usually called astrology. (Evangelical Christians are usually very unhappy when one points out that that chapter is based on astrology.)

What Darwin proposed is a theory of natural selection in order to explain how evolution happens. The controversy when The Origin of Species was published arose because most people believed that all animals were created in the Garden of Eden exactly as they are now. That is, Creationists are interpreting a haggadah about free will as if it were intended to be a biology textbook. One could now go on about why some devout people refuse to alter their religious beliefs in light of scientifically proven facts; that is the pathology of unteachability. However, those who claim to represent science, when in fact they are actually espousing their own philosophy, which is a belief system, are also not guiltless in such controversies.

After one such televised debate, the proponents were asked what might cause them to change their minds. The Creationist answered, “Nothing.” The “scientist” answered, “Evidence,” which made him sound as if he were being openminded—but he was not, because he was demanding a type of evidence about the fundamental proposition underlying the controversy, a type that by its nature cannot exist, because it is a logical impossibility. By progressing from saying, “I do not believe that God exists” to saying, “I believe that God does not exist,” he had stepped over the line from science into philosophy, by failing to doubt his own belief. From being an Unbeliever, he became a Disbeliever. The category of Unbeliever includes all Agnostics, and, as I will argue, a mature acceptance of the truth of, for example, Catholic theology (and, I think, of all other theologies) requires one to be agnostic.

My own period of militant agnosticism, which began at age 14, simultaneously with my discovery of the existence of the Craft as a religion, ended in about 1963, when I learned from my cultural anthropology major that all humans have a religion, which is as essential for human survival as food. “But why?” I wondered. “What is it that religion supplies for people?” Taking the social-science viewpoint that “religion” is a label for a category of human behavior, I began to ask what all religions have in common, which is, in fact, very little. Theism immediately falls off the list. Theravada Buddhism is obviously a major religion, but is absolutely nontheistic; the existence or nonexistence of any divine reality is simply irrelevant to the teachings of the Buddha.

Similarly, none of the varieties of secular Judaism are based on theism. The variety I know most about is the Humanistic Judaism founded by the late Rabbi Sherwin Wine, one of the most truly remarkable persons I have ever known. As he said to me, Judaism was actually polytheistic when it was founded in 621 BCE. Monotheism was not invented until about 550 BCE, simultaneously by the Second Isaiah and the pre-Socratic philosophers living a few hundred miles north of Judea. That is, the value system of Judaism is based on the cultural identity of the Jewish people, not on monotheism. Wine created a gorgeous liturgy based on the Mishnah, especially the Sayings of the Fathers, the primary document of the House of Hillel.

I think it was during my doctoral program in the 1970s that I hit upon a promising hypothesis: the one trait all religions have in common is their primary function of supplying a system of values, which humans must have in order to make important decisions, such as, “What should I do with my life?” The inverse of this hypothesis is that each person’s system of values is what serves as the functional equivalent of a religion—and it does not matter whether or not that system is labeled as a “religion.”

Given this definition, religion does not need to be social, shared, a church; a person’s religion can be individual, singular, unique. Further, the infinite value of a life depends on only its own existence, not on that of any other being; a human life remains infinitely valuable whether any other being, divine or physical, exists or not. There is a Jewish saying: To take a life is to destroy the entire universe.

Belief in the value of truth, dedication to the pursuit of truth, is itself a religious value, the one that underlies science.

Liberal religious folks, like most well-educated Catholics, resolve the controversy for themselves by saying something like, “I can suppose that God created the process of evolution by natural selection in order to create life, and us.” They might go on to say, “The creation stories in Genesis were intended to teach us why God created us, not how. Genesis 1 says his purpose was to create goodness.” But the Disbeliever refuses to be open to the possibility that anything divine could exist at all. He asks, “If God exists, why doesn’t he prove that to us?” There is an answer. I will get to it.

You can find my books on Amazon:

A Tapestry of Witches: A History of the Craft in America, Vol. I, to the Mid-1970s.Tacoma, WA: Hierophant Wordsmith Press, 2015.

Aradia and the Books of the Sacred Marriage: A Tale of Love, Witches, and Gnostics. Tacoma, WA: Hierophant Wordsmith Press, 2016.

Hippie Commie Beatnik Witches: A Social History of the New Reformed Orthodox Order of the Golden Dawn. Tacoma, WA: Hierophant Wordsmith Press, 2011.

Theodyssies and Paradoxologies: Collected Poetry. Tacoma, WA: Hierophant Wordsmith Press, 2012.



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