Knowing: The Other Way of Knowing (Isn’t).

Knowing: The Other Way of Knowing (Isn’t). February 11, 2015

This survey of American beliefs showed that Americans, at a rate of between 48 and 51% don’t believe in evolution. Which is, like, half. And of top of that 51% a further 38 to 40% of Americans believe that biological evolution has occurred but believe that it was initiated by, and has since been kind of administered by, um, god, leaving a very small percentage of Americans who are right.
Tim Minchin

Somehow along the way, a lot of people in this world seem to have selectively forgotten what facts are.

That’s how I ended up in Christianity, you know; I got the idea–very early on–that some stuff that couldn’t be credibly verified in any way could still be factually true. Naturally, this idea was pushed onto me to make it easier to get me to believe in a particular religion’s claims, and it worked. I was young and already living in a fantasy world that I now suspect was extensive even by the standards of that age group, so the seed took root worryingly well.

I didn’t know what facts really are. I mistook them for a lot of other things, especially opinions and feelings. I didn’t know that facts are pieces of information that line up with reality, and I certainly did not know that if something doesn’t line up with reality then it is not a fact. A fact is something that really happened or is really happening; it is information that can be verified, cross-checked, and tested. It doesn’t matter who is looking at the fact; it still looks the same to anybody viewing or measuring it. It is not subjective, but rather objective. And we build our beliefs and opinions, ideally, out of these facts.

“Hunches” were just as good as real facts, according to the movies I adored as a teenager. At one point in Beverly Hills Cop, Axel Foley chews out his posh friends because they do everything “by the book;” he tells them that back in Detroit, good cops solve mysteries by guesswork and instinct–and of course, it being a movie about Axel Foley, his instincts about this particular case prove to be correct and he saves the day. In another 80s movie, the animated Rock and Rule, after seeing what he believes is his band’s kidnapped singer Angel cuddling up to the villain, the anti-hero Omar is told by his friends to “trust his heart” rather than his eyes when deciding whether or not to rescue her; he decides to go with his instincts and it turns out that he was correct: Angel did not in fact leave the band of her own volition and is actually in desperate need of help. (Ceiling Cat help me, I’d better not have spoiled either movie for anybody.)

I’m sure you can think of many other examples in popular media where this kind of thinking occurs. Over and over again, I got taught in a thousand different ways long before I landed in fundamentalism that there were all kinds of truths in the world and that science didn’t know everything. I got taught that facts weren’t always facts, and something could be totally unverifiable and still be factual.

Obi-Wan (Photo credit: Wikipedia) Not shown: just the facts, ma’am.

And, too, thanks to the teaching I received, I learned to fudge what “facts” even are. I didn’t know how to tell if something was factual or not. I couldn’t distinguish between a truth I felt and a truth that was based on facts. When pressed, I couldn’t have told you the difference and I’d have insisted up and down that my myths were truth–from a certain point of view, as Ben Kenobi tried to tell his young charge (and I got much the same reaction Ben did). I needed to fudge the facts about my religion, since not a bit of it was founded on real facts, but rather on these metaphorical truths that we’d somehow spun into physical facts.

There’s a world of difference between our emotional worlds and our physical ones. I’ve learned since then to separate out metaphorical truths from physical facts, and to recognize that a fact that only exists metaphorically isn’t actually a fact at all but that doesn’t make it bad intrinsically. A metaphor–like those found in mythology–can help us to figure our way through life and even be a model for our behavior, but they’re not meant to be literal science or history. They transmit cultural knowledge and ideas about morality and relationships, but they’re not going to tell you about Germ Theory or exactly what happened in 1066 CE. Stories and myths are great at communicating emotional ideas, but not so good at revealing facts.

Mixing myths with reality cheapens them both; not only is this merger not necessary but it sets believers’ feet on an inevitable collision course with reality. The second a pagan climbs Mount Olympus and discovers that there is no mighty celestial palace up there inhabited by gods, that person’s got a really tough decision to make: face the discovery squarely, or keep insisting that the gods live atop that mountain. I needed to keep saying there were gods up there, because if the myths in the Bible weren’t 100% true, then there was little point in sacrificing so much to live by its demands and to fear its threats.

The truth I found atop the mountain, when I’d finally climbed to the top of it, was this: if Genesis’ creation myth didn’t happen, then there wasn’t any Original Sin; if there was no Original Sin, then there was that much less that humans needed to be “saved” from. If there wasn’t an original Adam, then there isn’t much need for a “Second Adam”–who of course is Jesus. A lot of the stuff in modern Christian thinking depends on a varying amount of the Bible’s mythology being totally for-sure true and realsies, as in factual fact. If understood as metaphor only, a lot of the “oomph” goes out of its threats and promises.

But this was knowledge hard-won.

Here’s what I’ve learned since leaving religion:

No, there isn’t actually any other way to get to an objective fact than the plain ol’ boring normal way we’ve got now: the scientific method.

Some folks claim to know something is true through intuition, but our intuitions are often wrong. When they’re right, they’re often based on subconscious and subliminal cues that we didn’t realize we’d noticed. Subliminal messages such as we encounter in advertisements aren’t a guaranteed brainwashing tool, but they do seem to influence people to some extent. And our memories are worryingly unreliable even seconds after an event occurs, with it possible to manufacture–or implant–memories that feel just as real as if the events in them actually happened–as Brian Williams and others discover regularly to their detriment. We’ve also discovered that some of people’s supposed supernatural feelings or experiences may be due to something as mundane as hearing infrasound frequencies, or having certain parts of their brains stimulated. Supposed Near-Death Experiences are regularly debunked–and we know that they can be reliably reproduced through other means than dying.

Every single person reading my words right now has had an experience with something or someone thought to be sincere and true that turned out not to be. Even when we’re very, very certain about something’s validity, we’ve ended up being totally wrong. We’ve lost money, been betrayed by friends, even gotten involved in scams–all on the basis of going with our instincts and either never researching or disregarding the facts around the situation.

The point is, our subjective experience isn’t trustworthy and shouldn’t be a basis for believing in anything. At some point we have to back it up with real facts: direct observation, or research into actual history, or a well-designed experiment in science. No matter how much we want to believe something–or how much we fear a threat–before we invest our emotional strength, time, or money in something we should find out if there’s something there or not. We’ve got to figure out what the claims actually are, and what the facts are that support that claim. If we skip that step, we could be getting involved with something untrue.

In Christianity, the claims are crystal-clear: there is a supernatural realm that we cannot see that is inhabited by all manner of supernatural beings who we also cannot see. When we die, some part of us lives on–a part we also cannot see–and lives on in that supernatural realm that we cannot see. It is all presided over by an impossibly-powerful being called “God,” who for some reason designed a cosmology that is bafflingly unjust and sex-obsessed, and who we have never seen. If we do exactly what is dictated by the particular flavor of Christianity making the claim about this god and his wishes for humanity, then we’ll go to a really nice part of that supernatural realm after our deaths; if we do not obey and somehow force ourselves to believe this claptrap, then we will go to a very unpleasant part of that realm (the exact nature of that unpleasantness varies wildly from “temporarily sad and sniffly” to “torturous burning and demonic rape by demons with improbably large and uncomfortable sex organs,” depending on the toxicity of the Christian), but neither of these realms has actually ever been credibly demonstrated to exist. Our “souls,” that part of us that continues after death, lives on eternally, as does the god of that realm, so we’ve pretty much got to make the right choices here in our finite lifetimes because there are no take-backsies after death (again, this claim also varies wildly). The god of this realm (along with a great number of other supernatural denizens from there) can also reach through the veil separating our reality from his realm and meddle with this world, and indeed he does so on a near-constant basis, though for some reason his “miracles” have seen a distinct downgrade in zing from Business Class a couple thousand years ago to Economy nowadays.

And not a single thing in that entire preceding paragraph has ever been shown to be factual. It is all mythological, just like every other religion’s claims are mythological. Every single word of it is metaphorical at best. There’s never even been support discovered for the existence of any supernatural realm. Certainly nobody’s ever demonstrated that any part of us lives on after death. Those two things would be the first pieces of evidence that I’d require to buy into any claims that most religions make.

That doesn’t stop Christians from saying that their religion is totally true and real in the same way that my desk is real, that my existence is real, or that the city of San Francisco is real. Oh, sometimes you’ll run into Christians who play word-games to the contrary, questioning how we know that my desk is real, that my existence is real, or that San Francisco is real, but those overly-pedantic, self-impressed zealots are the easiest and fastest to write off–because really, if someone’s favored apologetics method requires a target to wonder if San Francisco is real before “Heaven” can start looking halfway plausible, then there’s nothing really left to discuss because we are dealing with a fundamentally deluded or dishonest person whose entire sense of reality is flawed and warped.

But that disconnect between fantasy and reality doesn’t stop an awful lot of people from trying to make others believe in nonsense alongside themselves.

The truth remains: there has never been any other way of finding out actual facts than the way we’ve already hit upon: the scientific method. Some phenomenon is observed; a question is asked based on those observations, research is done about it, and a guess made about what’s happening; a falsifiable, testable experiment is conducted to see if we’re right; more observations are made as a result of the experiment; and the question is answered yes or no or “we’re not sure yet”–and more questions might well be raised besides. Every one of us does this evaluations every single day in our everyday lives when we decide where to invest our money, what job to take, what brand of shampoo we should use, and what route to take driving somewhere. It’s beautiful, it’s simple, and it’s easy. Most of us don’t even notice we’re doing it, it’s so ingrained in us.

But there are times when we turn it off quite deliberately, and a lot of those situations revolve around stuff we really, really want to be believe. A financial scam too good to be true, a religion that promises wonderful things to believers (and terrible things to non-believers), a lover trying to get back with someone after a breakup by swearing that this time it will all be different, all of these situations tug at our hearts and hopes–and make us disregard or fail to seek the evidence before us. Worse, our culture supports the idea of disregarding evidence. We make up “other ways of knowing” and call those intuition or gut instinct, and start thinking of those things as being just as good as real facts. Sometimes we luck out and the situation turns out all right; sometimes we end up wasting half a lifetime on progressively worse nonsense because we couldn’t understand why reality wasn’t lining up with the fantasy we had.

I truly wish I had known as a child that there isn’t actually “another way of knowing.” There’s one way of knowing, and that’s the way that works to bring us facts that are actually in line with reality. There is a reason nobody let me in on that great truth, however, and it is a terrible reason. Had I known it, I’d never have bought into religion like I did. Instead, I grew up reviling the one method of finding the truth that actually works. Millions of Christians right now revile it similarly, and they do so for the same reason I did:

The scientific method is reviled by Christians precisely because it has never once supported any of their supernatural claims.

Not once has any experiment demonstrated even the existence of a supernatural realm, much less the existence of an eternal soul, much less the validity of a single “miracle” claim, much less that prayer accomplishes anything beyond making the praying person (and sometimes the target–but not always) feel good and look pious, much less that a god resembling that found in the Christian Bible even exists, much less that this god’s threats and demands are anything to take seriously.

There is not a single fact we know to be true and real that we have found in any other “way of knowing.” Not one. But it’s all they’ve got.

If the scientific method actually did support a single one of Christianity’s claims, you can bet Christians would be on it like white on rice. Because it does not, however, they are left with finding ways to knock it down and make it look less reliable and trustworthy–when they’re not inventing their own homebrew “experts” to peddle pseudoscience and revisionist history to their flocks to make the religion’s claims seem more plausible than they are. We’ll cover these “experts” and their dark arts next time, but for now, let’s sum up.

Anybody who wants you to believe that there is some massive shortcoming to the scientific method is trying to sell you something and can’t do it any other way than by denigrating or discounting facts to make fantasy seem more plausible.

That’s why so many Christians call those who embrace the scientific method “evil-lutionists” like it’s some kind of insult, and why they rail at the idea of verification and falsification (if they even know what those are in the first place). They have to. If those qualities actually helped their claims, religious folks would be extolling their virtues instead of trying to downplay their importance.

The second someone sniffs at the idea of objective facts, the very moment that person wants you to believe something that he or she cannot actually demonstrate in a credible manner, you may feel perfectly free to dismiss that person’s claim for the nonsense that it is. As Aron-Ra has said, if you can’t show it, you don’t know it. Be very wary indeed of someone who wants you to disregard facts (or not seek them at all) in order to buy into a claim. I don’t know about y’all, but I’ve just got no more time for stuff like that. The truth is beautiful all by itself, and facts are amazing to me. I don’t need fantasy anymore to feel wonder and astonishment at our world, or to treat people as decently as I can and live an honest life. I want to build my worldview on facts, not on wishful thinking.

We’re going to talk more about this idea next time–when we cover how many topics could be proven by “another way of knowing,” and discuss pseudoscience peddlers who’d just love it if people embraced that idea more fully than they already do. Pseudoscience is one of my bugbears, so I’ll try not to talk y’all’s ears off, but I think it’s important for people recovering from religion to be thinking about it. See you Friday!

* “Other Ways of Knowing”, RationalWiki
* “Andrew Brown: There are Lots of Ways Besides Science to Find Truth, Why Evolution is True

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