There’s a good piece over at Daylight Atheism, and I wanted to call it out and blog about it a little. It’s called The Curiously Postmodern Modern Apologists, and it’s about… well, the curiously post-modern twist that many modern apologetics for religion have been taking.
The gist of these apologetics: Nobody knows anything for 100% certain. Atheists and believers, scientists and philosophers: nobody can be 100% certain that the things they believe are true. Whether secular or religious, we all have some version of faith.
Therefore, religious faith is as valid as any secular kind. Believing in God, in angels, in reincarnation, in 72 virgins awaiting us when we die, in Jesus dying to save our souls, is every bit as valid as believing that the earth goes around the sun.
Let’s take a look at this thought process, and see if we can spot the logical flaw.
The thought process goes like this:
One: You can never be 100% certain that you’re right about anything.
Two: Therefore, all ideas are equally likely to be true, and equally valid.
(Three: Therefore, my idea is right. But I think it’s pretty obvious why that one’s wrong, so I’m not going to bother shooting that particularly slow fish in that particularly small barrel.)
Okay. First of all, Two does not follow from One. Yes, it’s true, we can never be 100% sure of anything (except perhaps our own existence). The history of knowledge is full of mis-steps and false assumptions… and besides, everything we see and experience could all be an illusion. We could all be in the Matrix, or something.
But the fact that we can’t be 100% sure of any idea doesn’t mean that all ideas are equally likely or unlikely.
The fact that we can’t have 100% certainty doesn’t mean that we can’t assess which ideas are more or less likely. We can’t know for 100% certain that the earth orbits the sun — it could all be some horrible Satanic deception, or space aliens playing a practical joke — but we can be pretty darned sure that it’s very likely indeed. And we can’t be 100% sure that Bertrand Russell’s china teapot isn’t orbiting the sun — maybe it’s too small to be seen by our telescopes, or maybe it’s an intelligent teapot and is playing a cheeky game of hide and seek — but we can be pretty darned sure that it almost certainly isn’t.
And of course our beliefs are influenced by our preconceptions and assumptions, biases we can never completely filter out. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. That’s the whole point of the scientific method. Everything about it — control groups, double-blinding, placebo controls, peer review, transparent methodology, the expectation of replicability, all of it — is an open acknowledgment that scientists are just as prone to seeing what they want and expect to see as everyone else. It’s an open acknowledgment that scientists are fallible… and that they therefore need to try to screen out fallacy, as much as they can. These techniques don’t eliminate uncertainty — but they reduce it, and by a fair amount. They give us a significantly better chance that our theories might be right. They canât give us absolute truth, but they can give us a pretty good approximation of the truth… an approximation that gets better and better over time.
That’s why I’m always astonished by religious believers who accuse scientists of being arrogant… when it’s the scientists who are saying, “Yes, we can make mistakes; no, we’re never 100% sure that we’re right,” and the believers who are saying, “I know in my heart that I’m right, and my faith is all the evidence I need.”
And yes, for the record, I do think religious belief, while not 100% disprovable, is highly implausible. I’ve discussed why I think that elsewhere — here, and here and here and here, and here, and here, and here, and here and here, and here — and I’m not going to do it again here. Besides, I digress.
The point is this:
No, none of us can ever be 100% certain that anything we know is really true.
Does that mean we should give up on trying to understand the world? Does that mean we should give up on trying to separate the implausible from the plausible, the likely from the unlikely?
No, we can’t be 100% sure of anything. But we can be sure enough. We can be sure enough to make reasonable assumptions, and to make further explorations and investigations based on those assumptions. And if it turns out that one of our assumptions is wrong after all… well, okay. We’ll change it, and move on from there. Yes, it’s important to understand that we can’t have total certainty… but it’s also important to accept that fact, and move on.
Wanting certainty is understandable. We all want it, and try to create it, and feel betrayed when we don’t get it. But I think it’s something of a childish desire. Grown-ups are supposed to understand that there are no guarantees in this world. We’re supposed to understand this, we’re supposed to accept it, and we’re supposed to work within the world we have: the world of likelihood and probability and reasonable educated guesses.
To do otherwise — to assume that, because we can never be absolutely certain about the world, therefore we shouldn’t even try to understand it — is like a child crying for the moon. It’s like never falling in love because you might get your heart broken. It’s like a stoned college freshman being backed into a corner in an argument, and trying to get out of it by saying, “What is reality?”
It’s an abdication of responsibility.
And grown-ups aren’t supposed to do that.