Tag Archives: Science

An Atheist’s Flowchart, Part 5: The Psychology of Belief

The third and final pillar of my atheistic treatise is the one I called “via explanation” way back in January. Whereas the first two pillars were pretty explicitly philosophical, this one tends to feel a bit more scientific. It actually comes from a counter-argument that I heard once from a theist, which went (very briefly) something like this: If god doesn’t exist, then how do you explain the millions of people who believe in him?

Different theists have made a bunch of variations on this argument over the years, but this particular one struck me because it’s actually a fairly empirical argument. It is uncontroversial that there are millions (arguably billions) of believers in god. While the act of believing in and of itself does not prove anything, the fact of the belief itself requires explanation and “god actually exists” could potentially be the simplest explanation of that fact. This argument is weakened somewhat up front by the fact that god is a terrible explanation for things in general, but it’s at least plausible on its face.

The true counter, and the heart of my third pillar, is the fact that science does in fact have an excellent explanation for why people believe in god. And that linked book was published over fifteen years ago; science has continued to clarify more pieces of the puzzle since then.

So. How does this become not just a counter, but an actual self-supporting argument for atheism? The transformation happens because you pretty much have to believe in science, and when you believe in science you get this full explanation “for free”. With this explanation in hand then, it would be incredibly weird for god to actually exist, but for people to believe in him for unrelated reasons. That kind of coincidence boggles the mind, and not in a blind watchmaker sort of way.

By way of analogy, imagine, if you will, a mouse that has been placed into a totally isolated box and injected with a mysterious serum. The serum causes the mouse to develop human-level intelligence out of nowhere, but of course the mouse cannot see, smell, or hear anything outside of its special box. What are the odds that the mouse, through pure invention, manages to end up believing in an outside world even remotely similar to the real one? That of all the infinity of possible worlds imaginable by a mouse, it actually chooses the right one without any input whatsoever?

We are all the mouse, and we have every reason to believe that the gods we’ve constructed in our minds are nothing more than the spandrels of psychology.

Speculation and Metaphysics

OK then, back to the roadmap which I posted (oh goodness) 3 years ago now.

Over the last rather… “spread out” batch of “planned” posts we’ve used the handy tools of abstraction and social negotiation to answer some standard philosophical questions. Today we’re going to add another useful concept to our toolkit, and use it to take on metaphysics (no not all of it, but a lot of it).

The concept we’re going to deal with today, as suggested by the title, is speculation. Speculation is a fairly ordinary word, and I’m using it in the ordinary sense, so there’s really not a lot going on here. It’s can be a useful thing to speculate, and it’s a critical component of the second step in the scientific method. However, this means that testable speculation is science, not philosophy. Perhaps poorly-performed science, but still science.

Conversely, untestable speculation wanders dangerously close to meaninglessness (just as I am now wandering dangerously close to logical positivism). It can by definition have no influence on reality whatsoever, and so nothing speculated in this way can matter or exist in any useful sense.

Note: it is of course important to distinguish pragmatically-untestable speculation (e.g. quarks in the mid-twentieth-century) from actually-untestable speculation (more along the lines of Russel’s Teapot).

Classic metaphysics (especially of the Greek variety) tends to fall mostly in the was-actually-bad-science camp, for example Thales of Miletus who believed the underlying principle of nature was that everything was made of water. Other metaphysics (e.g. free will) will have to wait for a later post.

The Scientific Method

All of this wandering around thinking about rationality, empiricism, truth and knowledge now finally culminates in the scientific method. This is, of course, not the be-all and end-all of truth or knowledge, but it is one of the most useful tools we have for probabilistically determining the shape of reality.

If you’re not familiar with the scientific method (really?) it goes something like this:

  1. Have a question.
  2. Take a guess.
  3. Find something that your guess predicts.
  4. Measure it.
  5. If your measurement doesn’t match your predication, go back to 2. If it does match your prediction, go back to 3.

You will note, of course, that the scientific method never stops. It is an endless loop of trying out new ideas and finding ways to verify or disprove them. Every successfully predicted measurement is another step on the way towards statistical certainty, but of course like any empirical practice we can never get all the way there.

It is also relatively important that your guess (step 2) must be capable of making predictions (step 3). Every so often someone will claim to have solved a great complicated scientific problem by the means of some mysterious new substance. When asked about this substance, they are incapable of predicting its properties other than that it makes their theory magically work. These ideas do not fit in the scientific method – if it doesn’t generate predictions, it’s not science.