I would like to hear from anyone that thinks it is necessary to believe in anything. I have written to many scientists and skeptics over the years asking that they encourage thier colleagues to drop the use of the word believe or belief from all papers and discussions. I think it would be better to say "These are the conclusions reached after examining the evidence" rather than saying somethine like "I believe that ......" I don't think it is wise or necessary to believe anything. Instead the available evidence should be examined and intergrated into one's general understanding or model of true things in the universe and a conclusion then reached as to what and to what extent it adds to one's understanding more or new things. If the profession of belief was considered unacceptible in scientific social and legal discussions all parties could hold each opion expressed to the evidence that supported it. What do you think?
I “believe” that even the most objective and skeptical scientist must “believe” in certain foundational premises without which they could not pursue the search for scientific conclusions.
For example, among the “beliefs” that they must hold are the following:
• That the scientific method is valid
• That scientific conclusions and/or truths exist and are ultimately understandable through proper application of the scientific method.
• That, for any specific area of inquiry that they choose to pursue, there are undiscovered scientific conclusions and/or truths yet to be found
In addition, for any unproven theory or hypothesis, they probably have (unproven) “opinions” or “educated scientific guesses” about whether or not it is valid pending further evidence. Whether these “opinions” rise to the level of “beliefs” is, it seems to me, a matter of degree and/or semantics.
Dear Conservative Atheist:
Thank you for your response. I have read many responses to other views and have seen many of your responses. I am especially glad you responded to mine. First let me take your “belief in certain foundational premises” in the order you gave them.
“The scientific method is valid.” I say it is totally unnecessary to believe this. The scientific method proceeds from evidence and generates hypothesis’s that can be proven wrong by results from the natural world. Neither science nor its methods need be based on any belief in its (the scientific method) validity. The data or evidence either support the conclusions generated through the scientific method or they do not. The scientific method is just a way to knowledge and/or truths about the universe that has proven to work very well. The reason that scientists think that the scientific method leads to truths about the universe is because it has a pile of evidence from over about 400 years to support that conclusion. If you look at the history of human attempts to gain knowledge you will see that for most of our civilized existence other methods were used that were not nearly as successful. I think that based on the evidence I am justified in concluding that the scientific method is a valid method for discovering what is true about the universe.
“That scientific conclusions and/or truths exist and are ultimately understandable through proper application of the scientific method.” I say that this is not a belief but an assumption or supposition necessary to carry out any activity in the universe. It is like the ultimate extreme skeptical contention that humans can never know that they truly exist because the information received by our brain is totally disconnected from what is “really” out there. It’s the old brain in a vat argument. To this I ask; what choice do humans have but to assume they can understand a reality outside themselves? How could humans operate in the universe without such an assumption? Just for a moment let’s suppose that scientists and the rest of humanity were deluded and only thought they could understand the truths of the universe while in “reality” they never have and never could? How would things change? I say things would not change at all. We would still be acting and behaving in the universe in the same way. I can think of nothing that would change. So this is not a belief but just the way humans have always needed to operate in order to survive as an element of the natural world. I think the evidence so far suggests that the universe is somewhat understandable to humans and until some experiment produces results that total confound and befuddle science or shows that all or most of the understandings achieved so far are somehow ill founded and don’t make sense I think the conclusion that the universe is somewhat understandable by humans is justified.
“That, for any specific area of inquiry that they choose to pursue, there are undiscovered scientific conclusions and/or truths yet to be found.” This one I find the weakest of all. Again you are confusing a belief with an assumption or supposition. What would happen if this assumption or supposition was incorrect? Nothing! No new conclusions or truths would be found. I can tell you that this happens all the time and yet it has not slowed scientists down a bit. I can also tell you that new truths and conclusions have been found and are found all the time. I don’t think that scientists have to “believe” they might find out new things if past experience (evidence) suggests that this will sometimes be the result of their inquiries. If there ever comes a day when humans continue to inquire into the universe and have no success in discovering new conclusions or truths then I would say you have a point. Until then I think the evidence justifies the conclusion that further inquiry will probably lead to new conclusions and new understandings of what is true about the universe.
Finally I agree totally with your last paragraph. Unproven theories, opinions and educated guesses are not beliefs. Scientists sometimes refer to these opinions or educated guesses as beliefs and that is just what I would like to see end. If you query a scientist about the professed “beliefs” you soon find lots of conditional statements that indicate that the scientist in question holds them very tentatively while looking to future evidence that will end or modify the speculation.
I would also like to address to you personally two things that I would be most interested in hearing your response to.
1. Why do you call yourself a Conservative Atheist? As I know the definition of a conservative it is one who whishes to conserve the status quo because suggested change is perceived to have negative or unforeseen consequences. In other words “let us just keep doing things the way we always have because it has worked so far and to change would probably mean screwing things up.” Liberals on the other hand are for constant change. “If it’s been around for only a little while lets change it or as soon as there is any difficulty with some older way of doing things it should be changed.” “Out with the old in with the new.” For thousands of years humans have pretty much been believers in “God.” All of the self proclaimed conservatives I know believe in god because that is the way it has always been. Belief in god has worked (according to the conservatives) for thousands of years and those who abandon it are fools. If you think I have this wrong just check out the United States Congress and try to find a “conservative” (republican) that does not believe in god. I don’t think you will find more that one or two “liberals” (democrats or independents) that will go on record as atheists. So to me a Conservative Atheist is sort of an oxymoron and I would like to know how you have reconciled it in your mind. It has been my experience in talking to self proclaimed conservatives and liberals that neither truly exists. I have instead found that most people are like me, progressive. Progressives of various degrees (liberal leaning or conservative leaning) think that the best way to deal with the problems encountered in the universe is to keep what has been developed and worked in the past and improve and change it so it works better and is more responsive to changing conditions. I think Sam Harris is one of us and so are you. Why don’t you come out of the closet and drop the conservative moniker.
2. What is with this lame quote you put at the bottom of all your responses? Do you understand your world through little quotes and slogans? Is this what you whish for the rest of us? I have looked at many of your responses and have come to the conclusion that you are much to trusting and “believing” in authority. You seem to have chosen the Republican propaganda over the Democratic propaganda chiefly because it fits better with everything you have been told by the authority figures in you life. I think you need to look through the slogans and propaganda of both parties to sort out truth from fiction. Continually professing generalities like “If you are old and not a conservative, you don’t have a brain” shows a lack of intellectual rigor and a lack of appreciation for the complexity of social conditions humans have to respond to. Dismissing or generalizing large groups of people with labels like Liberal or Conservative while insisting that one program (liberal) only fits the young and another (conservative) only fits the old promotes false stereotypes and a sort of generational warfare. How about slogans separating gender or race? In place of young and old stick in men and women or white and black. See what I mean? Please drop the slogans and examine all the pronouncements of Republicans and Democrats with equal skepticism and do so knowing that your objective analysis will be hindered by your over reliance on the value of authority.
My only point, was that if a scientist (or anybody else for that matter) does not “believe” that their efforts have some likelihood of yielding valid results and conclusions then they would have no reason to expend the effort.
If you want to call these things “assumptions” rather than “beliefs” I certainly could care less and am not going to waste my time engaging in some sort of arcane semantic “circle jerk” arguing the equivalent of “how many angels can fit on the end of a pin”.
That’s my point. When scientists or other members of society use the word “believe” to describe a conclusion based on evidence it is generally misunderstood by the general public and even presidents to mean that the ideas expressed have the same weight and significance as other beliefs (like religion). A perfect example of this is the so called evolution vs. creation controversy. In the United States there are senators, congressman, and presidents promoting the creationist view and even trying to call it science in order that it be taught as a possible truth that has been arrived at through the scientific method. I have heard over and over in the press, talks and journals about scientists “believing” in evolution. This causes the average “believer”, which according to the latest poles is the overwhelming majority of the American voters, to think that their beliefs share some common origin with those of science and should have an equal weighting with science in determining what is true about the universe. In the publics mind there is no distinction between conclusions based on rationally, logically examined evidence and those based on belief. In the U.S. and many other places in the world what a person believes can and often does trump the rational logical discourse necessary to solve social problems, make laws, determine goals and just plain get along. Not making some sort of clear distinction between conclusions reached by the logical rational analysis of evidence as opposed to those based solely on some unproven or unproved words in a book encourages the circle jerking in public discourse that you seem to abhor. I think that this is exactly what Sam Harris is talking about in his book. He has used religion as the most prominent of the belief based problems but if you read him carefully he does not limit his critique to religion. It is any faith based view that is the “conversation stopper”. Communism, Nazism, Lysenkoism, Liberalism, Conservatism, Hedonism or any other Ism one could think of that is not founded on rational principles and evidence but blindly followed in faith by its adherents. These zealots are everywhere killing conversation and making the world a more dangerous place because they polarize debates and will not compromise in the “belief” that one set of “beliefs” are just as valid as every other set of “beliefs.” Well that just is not so! Scientific conclusions have proven to be much more true than those generated through belief and unless a way is found to make that distinction nothing will change. I say the way to do this is to have people who think logically and can use evidence to defend and explain their conclusions and behavior distinguish themselves from the “believers” who don’t. It seems to me the simplest way to do this is to note that believing is not necessary and to say so by dropping it from expressions of conclusions. As just one example I think this would greatly help in stopping things like the waste of U.S. tax dollars to spread the faith based idea of abstinence as a solution to the aids crisis. The abstinence idea would have to compete with the other logical views of the best way to prevent the spread of aids.
In the many times I have attempted to promote the idea that there is no need for humans to believe things and that in many cases it is counterproductive for them to do so I have found a sort of negative knee jerk reaction to the idea. There seems to be a fearful reluctance deeply rooted in the brain to let go of the idea of belief. It is as if I am advocating a subjugation of self or a loss of individuality. But I am not demanding this or advocating that this idea be forced on anyone. I am encouraging people to take this on voluntarily and I am willing to plead my case through rational discourse and analysis of the evidence. I myself let go of the need to believe anything many years ago and find it liberating. When someone asks what I believe I will answer that I find it unnecessary to believe anything. After considering the evidence and knowledge I have available to me I draw conclusions trying to make a fit with all the other things I have found about the universe. Each conclusion is based not just on the current evidence but also on how it fits into my whole model of the universe. I have found that by approaching discussions in this way I can pretty much minimize the circle jerking effect of faith based beliefs (of all types) on the argument and keep the discussion in the “real” world. You might call it splitting hairs or language circle jerking but I would remind you that people have been killed in the past for their choice of words and are still being killed today. If which word a person used was not important why do people choose them so carefully (like the political spin doctors who seek to “frame the debate”)? I say distinguishing fact based from faith based conclusions is worth the circle jerking. The only way to reduce the threat from believers is to clearly distinguish a fact based conclusion from a faith based one. The way things are now this is not happening and it is causing problems that might just kill us all. I think this is really the theme of Sam’s book and why he started this forum (To get a dialog going that will hopefully lead to a movement that can make some necessary changes.). It is one thing to identify the problem it is another to come up with a plan to solve it. I offer my solution; a movement to eliminate the idea that believing things is a necessary human function for making decisions. To me this could simply be accomplished by not using the word believe when stating evidence based conclusions. That’s promoting a circle jerk?