Friday, February 18, 2011

Blinding Ignorance Does Mislead Us*

In "There Is Nothing Blind About Faith," Alister McGrath writes:
...all of us, irrespective of our views about God, base our lives on beliefs - on things that we cannot prove to be true, but believe to be trustworthy and reliable.
McGrath's point—that we all trust some things we can't absolutely prove—is valid, as I discussed in my post on "practical faith" a few weeks ago. I often "put faith in" people I perceive to be experts. If an Egyptologist (especially one I recognize from documentaries) made a claim about the meaning of an inscription in a tomb in the Valley of the Kings, I'd believe the claim, especially since it would probably have little or no real impact on me. But if my life, my liberty, or a significant chunk of my money was at stake, and time permitted, I'd want to research the surgeon, attorney, or roofer I was thinking about employing. "Past performance is no guarantee of future results," as investment literature warns, but the best chance of a successful operation, trial, or new roof lies in the hands of a professional with up-to-date skills and a good track record. When the outcome matters, I want evidence.

McGrath continues:
The simple truth is that belief is just a normal human way of making sense of a complex world. It is not blind - it just tries to make the best sense of things on the basis of the limited evidence available.
Uh, yeah, that's how a 5-year-old comes to the conclusion that the crumpled pair of pants under the bed is really a monster. If the evidence is insufficient to explain a complex situation, there's nothing at all wrong with admitting "I don't (yet) know why this happened." Unlike resorting to saying "goddidit," it's honest.

...thinking and informed scientists...make their decisions on the basis of their judgements of how best to interpret the evidence. They believe - but cannot prove - that their interpretation is correct. And nobody thinks they are deluded, mentally ill, or immoral for believing such things.
A delusional or mentally ill scientist could of course misinterpret evidence, but assuming that the scientist is no wackier than usual for an academic, an honest difference of opinion would probably not lead to accusations of insanity (although the professional debate could get heated). As evidence is added to, reviewed, and organized, though, a consensus may emerge. That's when we'd expect those who initially disagreed to review their earlier thinking, and possibly change their minds.

And that's the difference between science and faith. Science is forever adapting—improving!—as new evidence comes to light. Faith "is the same yesterday, today, and forever," and while some consider that a virtue, I don't. Progress can be unsettling, but its opposite isn't stability. It's stagnation.

H/T to PZ

* "Blinding ignorance does mislead us. O! Wretched mortals, open your eyes!" — Leonardo da Vinci

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