Saturday, January 28, 2006

Belief -- Why We Know What We Know

I had a fascinating conversation recently regarding belief. It got me to thinking about the nature of belief and faith and knowledge.

I am very interested in knowledge, what we know, how we know it and how we model it. But knowledge has, for humans, an emotional component. That is, while you know what you know (to an infinite level of recursion by the way) you also have an emotional response to that knowledge we call belief.

Why do I classify belief as an emotional response? Because belief is our emotional response that defends, in a way, our model of the universe. Those things we know very well we come to believe.

Of course belief can be mistaken and it can be changed. We may believe something very strongly, but cease to believe it when presented with strong evidence to the contrary. So, for many years people believed there were only 8 planets in the solar system. Then in 1930 people had to change their belief to accommodate a 9th planet. Many people took quite some time to accommodate this.

We are actually watching a similar belief transition now as people come to terms with the new knowledge that there is a 10th planet beyond Pluto.

But the conversation I was involved in centered around a belief in God. And the person I was in discourse with wanted to know why anyone would not simply choose to believe. He referred to Pascal's Wager which is an argument attributed to Pascal justifying belief in the Christian God on the basis of probability. Essentially, the argument states that one should believe because if one is correct there is an infinite reward to follow whereas if one is wrong there is no harm in having believed during life.

The core problem with this argument, of course, is that we do not CHOOSE to believe. We are drawn to belief, we are coerced to belief by evidence. If I do not find sufficient evidence to believe in a god, I cannot choose to believe in one anyway. In contrast, if I do find sufficient evidence to believe, I cannot choose to NOT believe. Believe is not a choice, it is a coercion.

Tim Holt's website has a good analysis of the objections to Pascal's Wager of which this is the third.

Belief may be coercive, but it also IS plastic. As evidence accumulates in one direction or another a belief can shift. This is typically, for complex issues and decisions, not a binary switch but rather a continuum that takes the person from a strong belief into the area of doubt, then ultimately to an accolades of the new belief.

But, again, belief is coercive. The accumulation of evidence will ultimately one to a conclusion and a belief even if that is in opposition to previous belief. How many parents honestly believe their child cannot have done THAT (whatever THAT is) only to finally have to acknowledge that the child DID do THAT in the face of more and more incontrovertible evidence.

However, there IS that issue of evidence. While one is coerced to belief by an accumulation of evidence, one's INTERPRETATION of evidence IS a matter of choice. Well, to some degree, anyway. For some things, the evidence is fairly incontrovertible. Or, as Holmes said, "circumstantial evidence my be virtually convincing, as when a trout is found in the milk."

But bigger issues typically have much less clear evidence. So where one person may see evidence of a god in a grain of sand, another may see evidence of complex forces driven by random events. And there is an emotional component to this interpretation as well. We often WANT to believe in particular positions which DOES color our interpretations of evidence even when we try to minimize this.

So where does this leave us? Well, it probably means there is very little chance of people with completely polarized beliefs will be able to convince each other based on current bodies of evidence. And since the interpretation IS colored by other emotionalaspects such as a need or a desire to believe a particular outcome, it is very difficult to move from one point of view to another based solely on improved interpretations. Rather, more and more dramatic evidence is needed. And it is seldom forthcoming.



jboyd said...

Great thoughts about belief, and knowledge. I think I can agree with much of what you wrote. I'm curious, what would constitute "dramatic evidence?" I like this terminology and am wondering if you are drawing from something else when you use this term. How would you define "dramatic evidence?" And, more specific to your current question as it relates to god: what would constitutue dramatic evidence for belief (coersion toward) god?

Bill McDaniel said...

I do not know what would constitute dramatic evidence...the problem with percieving godhood is that it is considered, in most religions, to be in-percievable...unknowable.

If you see your image of God walkign around doing things, are you not likely to be as disuaded in a belief of diety as persuaded?

On the other hand, how do you 'see' the grand, millenial march of randomness and self organizing behaviour on the scale of universes?

actually, reason comes to our aid there. We CAN reason our way to emergence and self orgainzation as a universe building force, because we see it happen in small scales and over a set of scales.

Diety is harder to understand than that because deity occurs in discrete events..creation, destruction, miracle (by their very nature, discrete and isolated from the normal run of the universe).

In addition, it is far easier I believe to be struck by the coercive nature of belief when consistency is present. Gods tend to be fickle and invoking one as primus mobile often leads you to a situation where you have to rationalize inconsistent behaiviour. For example, how can an all merciful, all good god cause children to be eaten by bears in retaliation for bad behaviour (JOB)? How do you resolve the problem of evil in a universe watched over, ostensibly, by an omniscient, omnipotent, all loving and merciful godhead?

To accomodate belief in such, you have to depart quite a distance, it seems to me, from Occam's very sharp knife. Besides, could such a god actually be so petty as to deny forgiveness after death? Isn't forgiveness needed anytime, whether before or after an arbitrarily imposed deadline?

Dramatic evidence? I don''t know what that would be with respect to a godhood. For dramatic evidence of the opposing view, i find looking at the incredible conenctivity of the world around us from the patterns of falling grains of sand to the expansion of universes. These seem far more consistent and posing of dramtic evidence of a self organizing principle.

Hope that clarifies

Randy Kirk said...

I will try to drop by more often now that I know about your blog. Nicely put about accumulating evidence. Most atheists are not really interested in the cummulative effect of evidence of God.

Anyway, I have a very active debate on this subject with very level headed and thoughtful atheists, agnostics and Christians at Come on over and join in.

Anonymous said...

Bill, I'm not getting into the argument here. Really, I just want to send you pictures of a black bear. That is something.