Avoiding false beliefs…
In The Problem, I tried to highlight a few of the serious errors that affect our thinking. Our beliefs are influenced greatly by desire and many hidden fallacies, and we have a strong tendency to preserve existing beliefs. I mentioned that there is no cure, but there is a treatment.
A few thousand years ago, Aristotle and his contemporaries began questioning the nature of reality and beliefs. They noticed that some things about nature are not as they appear, and only through a disciplined method of reasoning can they be discovered. These great thinkers concluded that the process by which we come to our beliefs is often flawed. Thus, Aristotelian Logic was formed as an effective way to determine which types of arguments should warrant consideration, and which were likely leading us to false conclusions.
Fast-forward to a few hundred years ago – a time in which significant discoveries were being made. First Copernicus and then Galileo discovered the heavens may not be as they are described in the Bible, and then Sir Isaac Newton displayed an uncanny ability to model the experiences of nature in simple mathematical equations. Something new was happening in the world. There was a challenge to the theocratic view placing God’s will behind all the blessings and ailments of mankind. Maybe the earthquakes, comets, plagues, diseases, and accidents weren’t all bad omens and curses from a supernatural world. Maybe they have natural explanations. If the germ theory of disease is right this poor woman is infected with a tiny bug rather than a demon, and we shouldn’t set her on fire to fulfill (what we believe is) God’s command.
Aristotle helped us understand that the way we came by our beliefs was flawed, and provided a partial remedy. It took much longer for a full solution to emerge from mankind’s awkward steps out of the darkness. Today there is a robust discipline that answers the problem on every level.
So what is this methodology that can help remedy the innate problem with the manner in which we come to our beliefs? Science.
How, specifically, does science restrict us from holding false beliefs to begin with? Science offers formal logic and the study of human behavior – both of which help to identify and explain the fallacious thinking we should make an effort to avoid. It provides truth tables which tell us what things are more likely true than not, and which cannot logically be true. Understanding the assumptions in an argument and filtering them through the discipline of formal logic will yield a probability of truth that is much more likely to reflect reality than forming a belief without them. Understanding human behavior through psychology, evolutionary psychology, sociology, anthropology, neuroscience, etc., helps illuminate the pitfalls of our thinking. Once we identify these errors in cognition (including why they exist, and how to avoid them) we can circumvent many of the trappings that lead to false beliefs.
What about the tendency to preserve existing beliefs? Science provides an answer for that as well by moving the repository of our pride. Normal human behavior involves investing yourself in your conclusions. Science says that the process by which we come to our belief is more important than the belief itself. Inso-doing, it places the incentive (and invests the ego) on providing objective justification for beliefs, rather than on preserving existing beliefs. Identifying an incorrect belief holds no shame because ruling out false beliefs is half of what science does and how it makes progress (for everyone). But holding onto a belief that is in contradiction to the weight of the evidence – that is a position to be feared. This wards off false beliefs by creating an intellectual environment in which beliefs are mostly tentative and there is great incentive to disprove even long-standing beliefs.
And what about the inability of subjective, biased humans to think critically about their own beliefs? This, too, is solved with science by placing the incentive on disproving, rather than proving claims (at least in the peer-review process before a hypothesis becomes a theory or a law). Science assumes subjective people (scientists) are biased toward their own beliefs which is why it is all about disproving hypotheses and peer review. This provides checks and balances to ensure biases and faulty logic are left out of any hypothesis that have been approved by the scientific community. Not only do we hold all conclusions as probabilistic and tentative, we don’t invest our egos in the conclusions, but in the process. In addition, science does not have authorities (who may each individually be biased toward their own beliefs) and does not give much credence to individual results. Instead it reserves authority for communities of people who work together to critically examine and disprove each other’s ideas before they can become recognized as candidates for Truth. If we think the universe operates a certain way and conduct a study that backs that up, we may be justified in a level of belief, but not in certainty. Until the process of peer-review has completed and the hypothesis has been tested extensively, published and retested over and over, and approved as a theory or a law, certainty is not warranted. I’ll evaluate more about the process of science in the follow-up post. Finally, science does not exempt any beliefs from examination. If a belief is going to make it into a form of research that may eventually be approved as likely true by the scientific process, it will be examined critically. Letting nothing hold more weight than what has been observed and tested (and can be by any person) makes science an extremely effective tool against the acquisition and perpetuation of false beliefs.
If science is so great, why does it make mistakes? Why do so many scientists still seem to hold false beliefs?
When discussing the problem I mentioned a belief equation. What might this overly simplistic equation look like from the perspective of science? It might be…
objective belief = probability of truth based on objective evidence
That’s it. The problem is, science does not hold any beliefs. Scientists do. Humans, including scientists, are subjective creatures. Even the best-trained critical thinkers continually fall prey to fallacious thinking. It’s in our DNA. We’ve evolved (or were created) with certain ways of thinking that corrupt our beliefs, making them less likely to be true, on average, than the objective probability of truth discovered by the process of science. I believe that it is precisely because of the inability for subjective, biased humans to think critically about their own beliefs, that the discipline of science was created. Still, it’s is not a cure, just a treatment. It must be understood and practiced by individual scientists regularly and mistakes sometime slip through. Imperfect as some of the results may be, you can’t really argue with the success of science in just the past two hundred years. Without advancements in the form of logic, evolutionary psychology, statistics, neurology, physics, etc., we would know relatively little about the pitfalls in our normal human reasoning and would have made little progress in medicine, technology, critical thinking, etc. Only those who have been educated about such things will even be aware they are prone to the fallacies of the mind.
In short, science is a direct answer to the flaws of human reasoning that leads to false beliefs. Science isn’t perfect and it’s track record hasn’t been perfect, but those are (mostly) the mistakes of individual, flawed, human scientists. The process of science is pretty stellar.
Science is immeasurably beneficial. We owe a tremendous amount to those who have taking up the mantle to practice its methods. It provides a solution for all the fallacious thinking we engage in naturally. That is precisely why it has been so successful. There simply is no better approach to determining truth than science.
In The Problem, I mentioned how acquiring beliefs is like filing in a crossword puzzle (see Cruciverb) or a Sudoku game, and using non-scientific reasoning often leads us to use a pen rather than a pencil. What would this look like when viewed through the discipline of science? Science says we should never use a pen. In science there are no pens. There is no absolute certainty about reality and there are no beliefs that are above questioning. Without science, answers are given until they conflict with other answers, both of which are likely written in pen (especially in the case of religious faith). That’s the point that cognitive dissonance kicks in, which we can choose to ignore or confront. If we confront the mismatched answers, any answer in pencil will be changed. The penned-in answers usually remain. It is not impossible to change a penned-in answer, but it is extremely difficult and rare (as you’ll see in a future post). When beliefs are reached by properly following science, false beliefs are not normally perpetuated because any conflict can easily result in a series of questions that goes back to the very first foundational answer. Science is all about challenging assumptions. That’s how scientific progress leaps forward. There are few leaps in world-views that have answers written in pen.
Gentleness and respect,
P.S. I’ve attempted to provide an explanation of how the process of science is the best way to attain true beliefs and avoid false beliefs. However, I was once very wary of science for several reasons, mostly related to my faith and misunderstanding of what science is and how it works. Science made some claims I didn’t want to be true and I didn’t think I could trust it. In case any readers have the same reservations, I will follow this up with The Solution – Part 2 to address those concerns.