Saturday, June 10, 2006

True Belief II: True Believer

Yesterday, in a posting dedicated to the value of true beliefs, and the social value of holding the dishonest and the intellectually irresponsible in contempt, I used an example involving a diver and a swimming pool.

Believing that the swimming pool was full of water, the diver jumps in. However, he discovers that his belief was mistaken, and the pool was filled with hydrochloric acid. It is a stark example the consequences of acting on false belief. It explains why we must work to create a society that values not only honesty but intellectual responsibility and curiosity as important virtues.

What we do not know can kill us. Ignorance is, in fact, the leading cause of death, illness, and all other forms of suffering.

Now, I want to carry the analogy further. I would like to add the scientist who has conducted experiments and formed the theory that the swimming pool contains acid rather than water. He has done so by means of applying the scientific method. Through his studies of the properties of water and acid, he has discovered some differences in how the two chemicals behave. In testing the contents of the pool, he discovered that his sample behaves like hydrochloric acid, rather than water. He has announced his results, whereupon a second scientist performed the same test and confirmed those results.

I would also like to introduce the preacher, who reads from his book that there is water in the pool, who condemns the scientist for making claims that contradict his religion. He asserts that faith is better than science at discovering truth and, if it is written in his book that pool contains water, it must be so, regardless of what the scientist says.

The preacher goes on to accuse those who side with the scientists as intolerant, and who claim that those who prefer science over religion are inherently evil and are not to be trusted. He holds up as his model of moral perfection the likes of Ann Coulter, who proclaim the country should rid itself of these godless scientists with their experiments and their theories who continually get in the way of faith.

The preacher, with his bible, tells the diver that not only may he enter the pool, but his book says that he must enter the pool as a way of proving his devotion to God and securing for himself a place in heaven.

But wait! There’s more! He also tells the diver that, before diving into the pool, he is to help the preacher compel others to dive into the pool as well. He is to join an “Army of God” that will round up others with the intention of doing God’s work and getting as many people into the pool as possible. If he will join this army, donating his time and a portion of his income to the cause, then he will be a truly virtuous person and truly deserving of a place in heaven.

He also claims that anybody who criticizes his view – anybody who says that the pool does not contain water and that those who say so are mistaken – are guilty of religious discrimination. Religious liberty, they say, means that nobody is permitted to criticize the preacher or question his claims.

Then we introduce the politician who has a need to mobilize his political base for the next election, introducing legislation and constitutional amendments for the sake of making his campaign attractive to the preacher and his army of God, so that he may collect campaign contributions and votes from them.

We must also introduce the businessman who profits from having others enter the pool. He hires the PR firm who creates a campaign to discredit the scientists who claim that the pool contains acid. The PR firm collects millions from the businessman and uses it to launch an advertisement campaign to bombard the diver with messages from all direction that he is to listen to the preacher, not the scientist.

The PR firm creates advertisements that say, “Scientists once thought that diseases were caused by ‘bad air,’ and now they say that diseases are caused by bacteria and viruses. They once said that the space between the stars was filled by aether because light is a wave and could not travel through a vacuum. Now they assert this absurd ad hoc idea that light is both a wave and a particle that can travel through a vacuum without difficulty. They admit that the universe has “dark matter” and “dark energy” that they do not understand. So, we clearly should not believe what they say about the pool containing hydrochloric acid.”

In another campaign, the PR company makes a colorful add full of sweet music and pleasant images while an announcer with a soothing voice tells the audience that hydrochloric acid is what the stomach uses to digest food. “Some call it pollution. We call it life.”

They find so-called scientists who are willing to say that the original scientists’ experiments were flawed, and other scientists who are willing to say that bathing in acid is good for you, and they pay millions of dollars to promote whatever books and articles these so-called scientists are willing to publish.

Whereas the only outlet the scientists have are the peer-reviewed scientific journals, where scientists talk in a language that only other scientists can understand, while the rest of us are watching “Survivor” or, at best, “Fox News”, brought to you by the businessman looking for a way to put his PR spin in front of as many people as possible.

Let me make it clear that the political right are not the only villains in this story. We also need to introduce the members of the political left who do not want the diver to enter the pool of acid, because they have a pool that they want the diver to enter instead. Their pool does contain water, but the water is at a near boiling temperature. They also have people who profit from having divers enter their water, their “paid experts”, and preachers who say, “Those other preachers do not interpret the book correctly. The book says that you must enter into this pool, not that one.”

Do you really believe that there is nobody out there paying to promote certain ideas on the political left, not because they are true, but because they are profitable? Furthermore, there is more than one kind of profit. There is cash in the bank. There is also power – the ability to get into a position to make decisions for others, to profit one’s friends, and to burden one’s enemies. Intellectual recklessness and the urge to enter into an “army of whatever” by accepting all of what that subculture says just so that one can belong to something are not traits found only among political conservatives. They are human traits.

Then there are those who say, “Wait! Let’s find out what is really in these pools. Let us use science with its reliance on observable and replicatable results, and use logic with its truth-preserving principles, to determine what is in each of the pools and what the effects of diving in will be. Let us create a culture made up of people who are intellectually curious and intellectually responsible, with a love of truth and contempt for deception and intellectual recklessness, so that we can make intelligent and informed decisions.”

So, why do I care?

Here’s one reason:

The pool is filled with hydrochloric acid.

Some people might argue that religious belief is not as bad as all of this.

Two things can be said about that.

The first is that they are right, as far as some religions go. There are some preachers who listen to the scientists. They say things like, “God commands us to do that which is good. If the scientists are right, it is not good to tell others to go into that water. Yes, parts of the book say that pool has water and not acid. However, given what the scientists have discovered, we must accept those passages metaphorically, and not allow the reality of the acid to do harm.”

The second is that we may imagine different concentrations of acid to correspond to the different levels of harm. For each of the harms done in the name of religion, from blocking stem cell research to cure disease, to prohibitions on birth control, to forcing people with terminal illness to endure an end of days that would make a dive in a pool of acid seem pleasant, to preventing homosexuals from having the institutional support to form stable relationships, to insisting on programs that scientists tell us are less effective at preventing sexually transmitted disease and unwanted pregnancy, to sewing a general disregard and disrespect for the tools of true belief, there is a level of acid that will provide the corresponding level of misery.

The people at risk of entering this pool are our friends, our families, our neighbors, and our children -- who will soon discover that the public school requires students to go through rituals whereby only those who agree that the pool contains only water will be fully accepted, and those who do not share this belief will be excluded. Does a person have to believe in God to have good reason to refuse to jump into a pool of acid?

Nothing could be more absurd.

I do not have to believe in God to have reason to protest when others, convinced by their faith that the pool contains water, come at me with warrants and laws and demand that I dive in this pool of acid or suffer the consequences.

If there is no God, then this life is the only life we have. If this life is the only life we have then it is particularly hard to watch one’s friends, family, neighbors, children, and grandchildren dive into this pool of acid. There is also no reason to sit quietly while others, convinced by religious faith that the pool contains only water, passes legislation that forces even us into the water.

What we lose, we never will get back.

1 comment:

beepbeepitsme said...

“You can't convince a believer of anything; for their belief is not based on evidence, it's based on a deep seated need to believe” Dr. Carl Sagan