Thursday, December 13, 2012

From the Slacktiverse: The Other Side Wants To Know Too

[Originally posted as an article at The Slacktiverse.]

I don't remember where it came up. It might have been talking about religion; it might have been talking about Fox Mulder's “I want to believe” poster.

Someone brought up the famous Carl Sagan-attributed quotation: “I don't want to believe; I want to know.” And that stuck with me because, though the person didn't do this and in fact used it well, I've seen the quotation used as a stick to intellectually bludgeon theists with at least since high school, probably longer.

And so while the quotation lingered in my mind for days on end, I flashed back to too many arguments to number, or at least too many arguments to remember the number, and what seemed like a fundamental misunderstanding at the core of all of them.

There are people who want to believe. There are people who want desperately to believe. But there's also a lot of people who want to know, and the idea of “I don't want to believe; I want to know” being some sort of magic argument that could convince people to abandon theism (thinking on high school now) or even being something anti-theistic at all (which includes a much wider swath than just high school) seems to miss a fundamental point:
The other side wants to know too.

In fact, I think that desire for knowledge over belief can reinforce the very kinds of theism that those trotting out the quote as if it were an argument would most oppose. Specifically extreme science-opposed fundamentalism.

Consider this obviously intended to be funny comparison of “science” and “faith”:

This image is described in the footnote linked immediately hereafter.

Now there are a lot of things that we can point out as wrong or misleading about it. For example it supports the idea that one cannot have faith and science both. The symbols around the “ignore contradicting evidence” section of the faith flow chart include: a crescent for Islam, the religion of Ibn al-Haytham and various other figures critical to the development of the scientific method; a cross for Christianity, the religion of such notable figures as alchemist and Bible code fanatic Issac Newton who provided calculus and our basic understanding of the universe until Einstein brought us General Relativity; a Star of David representing Einstein's Jewish identity, though (it should be noted) not his faith which is difficult to pin down but definitely not Jewish. possibly not his faith which is difficult to pin down and doesn't resemble the forms of Judaism I'm most familiar with but may well be Jewish.  (See the comments at the Slacktiverse for the source of the correction.)

But after spending that paragraph pointing out that the dichotomy presented is misleading at best and intentionally hurtful at worst, I'm going to be going with that dichotomy. I've pointed out one problem with it, and there are many more, but let's overlook that because I want to focus on the people for whom that picture is largely accurate.

The fundamentalists trapped by their own efforts, urged on by those around them, in a bubble that keeps out or shoots down all contradicting evidence.

Put yourself in their shoes. Assume that they don't want to believe, they want to know.

Point to the part on the science side where they reach the point of knowing instead of believing.

That's a trick, of course. There is no such point. The flow chart never ends. Any theory can be overturned, any belief can be shattered on the rocks; all it takes is some conflicting evidence. Either you have to modify the theory to accommodate it, or you have to abandon the the theory. Either way, it turns out what you believed before was wrong. You didn't know.

That's part of what accepting science is. It's accepting that nothing can be known for sure. That, for what it's worth, happens to be true. But it also means that you never know, and if you're honest with yourself you never get to say “I know”. Because in two minutes someone might stumble over a piece of evidence that disproves the theory you believed and send you back to square one.

Now point to the part in the “Faith” side where you get to say “I know”.

Pretty much any place you want will work. So long as you stay in the “Ignore conflicting evidence” bubble you get to keep the idea forever and never have to say that what you thought you knew was wrong.

If you want to know, rather than believe, the fundamentalist model seems more appealing. Preacher tells you, it's settled, you know, and nothing can change that. Of course you could be wrong. But you never know that you're wrong. Because you never allow for the possibility that you might be wrong. How could you be? You don't believe, you know.

From that point of view the inherent instability of science could seem downright frightening. You never reach the point where you get to stop. There is no end. You never reach the point where you can say “I know this”, only the point where you can say “Given the available evidence, this theory fits best and has loads of support, but the possibility still exists that it could be overturned.”

Thus a desire to know seems to reinforce fundamentalists' isolationism and fight against science. They want it to be simple. “They said it in church, it's true, done.” We see this in people who say, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it”, or “I don't believe Jesus is the savior, I know he is.” The desire to know, the desire for certainty, seems to push people to cling to things that don't get changed, or don't seem to get changed.

Consider this quote from Men In Black: “Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you'll know tomorrow.”

It's a picture of change. It's a picture of not knowing. It's revealing that the world is full of uncertainty.

Now compare that with someone who says that they're the purveyor of a religious tradition that remains true to the words of someone who lived two thousand years ago. It doesn't matter if it's not true, because the picture presented is one of certainty and lack of change: this was true then and it is true now. You can know.

Of course, there is an instability in the whole fundamentalist side of things. That is that science marches on. As early as Plato, we see religion incorporating what was then the cutting edge of scientific knowledge. The trouble is that now, that very same stuff seems absurdly unscientific. So if you start a religion right now, accepting all of the scientific theories accepted right now, and then don't change, eventually you're going to be believing things that science left by the wayside because it never stops changing. It never stops improving.

And those improvements can sometimes break through the bubble, and when they do... disaster.

At this point I direct your attention to Fred Clark; some excerpts are here but read the whole thing:
From the sound of what your aunt described, that's going to be the really tricky part for you, because she says you were always taught that everything must be accepted unconditionally — that it mustn't be tested and that it all, every bit of it, must be held on to forever. All of it or none of it.
And, based on what I heard from your aunt, you were always told that the whole concoction was inseparable — an all-or-nothing, take-it-or-leave-it deal. Instead of being encouraged, or commanded, to test everything and hold on to the good, you were told that you must either hold on to everything or abandon it all. And you were told that these were your only possible choices.
The all-or-nothing bill of goods she sold you when you were younger really is evil. It invites a crisis of its own making. It batters a child with a series of cruel non-sequiturs: If the earth is more than 6,000 years old, it says, then Jesus doesn't love you. If there weren't dinosaurs in Noah's flood, it says, then life is meaningless. If Isaiah was anything other than a carnival fortune-teller, whispering secrets to be decoded millennia later by the magic formula, then all hope is illusion. 
This all-or-nothing mixture of sense and nonsense is a house built on sand. Eventually, it will be tested and it will fail the test. And it will fall with a great crash.
When one knows, then one doesn't need to test. That's what knowing is. And when one is trying to sell something as the Honest to God (emphasis on “God”) known truth, then one can't let doubt seep in anywhere. Thus instead of “Test everything, hold on to the good”, which is a statement from (Christian) faith that I think is pretty well compatible with the scientific method, the seller teaches “Test nothing. You already know. I said so.”

This puts everything on the same level. Everything is known and thus untested. Everything has to be untested because doubt could undermine the whole game. “If my pastor was wrong about X, could he also be wrong about Y?” And if I'm right that a desire to know, a desire for certainty, plays a role in the embrace of fundamentalism, that's the kind of question a fundamentalist doesn't want to answer or ask.

And so the whole thing can come crashing down.

We know this because it has happened. There is evidence. But those within the bubble ignore conflicting evidence, so they don't necessarily know this. They may have been taught the all or nothing approach to keep conflicting evidence of any kind out, but what should that worry them? They know all these things are true. They have certainty.

I think that's the problem with those who use the “I don't want to believe; I want to know” quote against religion. The fundamentalists are there beckoning, “We already know, come inside and you can know too,” where science offers only “We don't know for certain, but we can offer increasingly close approximations of the truth.” If you want to know now, fundamentalist religion seems to have the better offer because they claim to know already, where as scientists are still working on it with no end in the flowchart. Certainly no end in sight.

I want to close by saying that while the (forgotten) recent usage of “I don't want to believe; I want to know” was what got the phrase stuck in my head and eventually led to the post, it was not one of the seemingly endless times I've seen it used against religion. It was used appropriately and well, it just set off memories of it being used badly.


[Back to the image]

The image contains two flow charts. The first, labeled “Science”, goes like this:

1) Start. Go to 2).
2) Get an idea. Go to 3).
3) Preform an experiment. Go to 4).
4) Does the evidence support the idea? Yes = Go to 5). No = Go to a).
5) Theory created. Go to 6)
6) Use theory to better understand the universe. Go to 7). (This box is surrounded in yellow border with yellow stars.)
7) Discover new evidence. Go to 8)
8) Can theory be modified to explain the new evidence. No = Go to b). Yes = Go to 9)
9) Improve theory. Go to 6).

a) Bad idea. Go to 2).
b) Revolution! Go to 2).


The second, labeled “Faith”, goes like this:

1) Start. Go to 2)
2) Get an idea. Go to 3)
3) Ignore contradicting evidence. Go to 4) (This box is surrounded by a red border and religious symbols.)
4) Keep idea forever. Go to 5).
5) End.

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