A belated addition to the Science/Religion thread

From: Jim Fehlinger (fehlinger@home.com)
Date: Thu Mar 15 2001 - 22:13:39 MST

I poked my nose a while back into an exchange between
Damien and Eliezer in which Eliezer had displayed some
rhetorical legerdemain by standing on its head the
usual claim that science deals in falsifiable
assertions and hypotheses, while relgion deals
with inherently non-falsifiable concepts. E. made
the statement that prior to the modern era,
religious texts relied for their authority on
descriptions of events (such as Moses parting the
Red Sea) that are very concrete indeed, and thus
falsifiable in principle, whereas it was a
symptom of the demoralization of modern theologians
that they shied away from such concrete statements.

I chimed in with an attempt to make the point that,
nevertheless, religion has always had somewhat of
the aspect of a confidence trick, because even
if signs and miracles were once described in unambiguous
terms, they were safely enough distant in space and
time that no chain of evidence was ever likely to surface to
embarrass the priests. There was also some discussion
of whether any alleged past event could ever be considered
beyond the range of verification by some future

It occurs to me now that this is all really beside the

I think the most important element of belief, for
scientists and priests and laymen alike, for butchers
and bakers and computer programmers, is the culturally-
derived semantic web that people carry around in their
heads, what W. V. O. Quine called, in a book by that
title, "The Web of Belief".

Most people **do not bother** to verify the vast
majority of facts they are nevertheless willing to classify
as true or false (except for trivial things like what
time the train to Boston leaves this afternoon, or
whether there's any Coca-Cola left in the refrigerator).
All the larger issues, like when Julius Caesar was born,
or whether F=GMm/r2, whether it's safe to drink fluoridated
water, or whether O. J. Simpson murdered his wife,
we leave to experts to decide.

It's part of the division of labor in modern society
that there are specialized subcultures -- the scientific
community, the legal profession, the medical profession --
with the equipment and the training and the traditions
about rules of evidence required to perform the difficult
labor of verification of facts and hypotheses, and the rest
of us, in 99.9% of all cases, rely on **them** to do the work,
and accept their reports as a good-enough account of the truth.

This does **not** mean that we just blindly accept
random statements from these people. The Harvard biologist
E. O. Wilson wrote, in a recent book, about "consilience" -- the
idea that the separate fields of science are converging,
slowly but inexorably, into a unified, compatible story
about how the world works. Similarly, everybody
expects a similar consilience to exist among broader areas of
expertise -- we expect legal experts to take current
scientific opinion to heart, and we certainly expect
medical experts to do the same. Industrial and business
practices, similarly, are informed through and through
by scientific opinion -- and I'm using the word "science"
here the way it is usually meant -- those traditions
of argument and rules of evidence that are practiced
and taught by the expert scientific community -- the
people who get to publish in refereed journals and
hold professorships at major universities, even if,
as Eliezer insists, there's no hard and fast boundary
between what they do and what ordinary people do
when they have to use their wits to figure things out
in ordinary life. It's simply a matter of rigor,
and systematization, and refinement, like the difference
between singing in the shower and performing at
Carnegie Hall.

It fits in with this notion of consilience that educated
modern people, more than people of past times, insist
that any fact or principle in which they are expected to
believe must be able to be integrated into a consistent
nexus of similar facts and principles without collapsing
or radically distorting the entire web. People are
less willing, I think, to accept on authority particular,
isolated facts, or little islands of special belief,
that don't fit in with that all-encompassing web that
includes Einstein and Darwin, H-bombs, comsats, and computers,
as well as less visible entities like electrons and
dinosaurs and magnetic fields, all linked together into
a more-or-less unified, more-or-less well-understood --
depending on a person's level of intelligence and
education, and more-or-less universally-shared view of
how the world works.

This web saves a lot of time and effort when it
comes to disbelieving offhand an enormous class
of things that people might once have been less
inclined to disbelieve.

So, if somebody tells me they've seen a dryad in the
woods, or fairies in the garden, or a ghost in the
cemetery, I dismiss these things automatically not
because I've bothered to perform any experiments,
or have any intention of ever doing so, but because
they simply do not integrate with the rest of the
web. Similarly with more serious issues, like the
question of life after death. I don't believe it because
it doesn't fit easily into the web, not without a
lot of stretching and straining and special pleading,
and I just don't have enough wishful thinking in me
to be able to bother to make the effort. It's the same
with the idea that Moses parted the Red Sea.

The persistence of "that old-time religion" in the modern
world is simply due to some groups of people having
been insufficently exposed to the web of consilience,
very largely, I think, due to the unavailability or ineffectiveness
of education. When young adults jettison, for instance, the
belief in special creation they've been bought up with in favor
of the modern secular view of dinosaurs, and Darwin, and the
4.5-billion-year-old Earth, it usually happens not because they've
been bullied into it, but because they're reasonably
bright to begin with, and they've gone off to college
and been exposed to the big bad modern web of belief.

The enormous intellectual appeal of consilience and
self-consistency gives the modern scientific web of
belief a tremendous advantage when it comes to colonizing halfway-
intellgent brains. You don't have to attend Evolutionists
Anonymous meetings to continue to believe in Darwin.
It's the smaller, coarser-grained, less-well-knitted webs of
traditional religious doctrines that require an enormous
ongoing amount of social support to hold together.

Could I someday come to believe in ghosts and God and
life after death and fairies and vampires and Moses and
the Red Sea? Yes, of course, but the whole web would have
to change, with much more all-encompassing abstractions
about what's possible in the universe in the middle,
and a vast number of new facts at the periphery, both
already-verified (by experts) and possibly-true. And the
current web wouldn't just be thrown out, it would be subsumed into
the new one, with all the existing nodes systematically
transformed into new ones, and the whole structure of
intricate links preserved in some form or other in the
new network. Oh, and "Moses and the Red Sea" would still
be unverified -- by me personally, of course, and probably
by the experts, too. It would simply have changed status from
"imcompatible: almost certainly untrue" under the old web to
"compatible: quite possibly true" under the new one. I
wouldn't necessarily need to see the "light of other days"
to come to believe it.

Jim F.

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