Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Other Side Wants To Know Too

I don't remember where it came up. It might have been talking about religion; it might have been talking about Fox Mulder's “I want to believe” poster.

Someone brought up the famous Carl Sagan-attributed quotation: “I don't want to believe; I want to know.” And that stuck with me because, though the person didn't do this and in fact used it well, I've seen the quotation used as a stick to intellectually bludgeon theists with at least since high school, probably longer.

And so while the quotation lingered in my mind for days on end, I flashed back to too many arguments to number, or at least too many arguments to remember the number, and what seemed like a fundamental misunderstanding at the core of all of them.

There are people who want to believe. There are people who want desperately to believe. But there's also a lot of people who want to know, and the idea of “I don't want to believe; I want to know” being some sort of magic argument that could convince people to abandon theism (thinking on high school now) or even being something anti-theistic at all (which includes a much wider swath than just high school) seems to miss a fundamental point:
The other side wants to know too.

In fact, I think that desire for knowledge over belief can reinforce the very kinds of theism that those trotting out the quote as if it were an argument would most oppose. Specifically extreme science-opposed fundamentalism.

Consider this obviously intended to be funny comparison of “science” and “faith”:

This image is described in the footnote linked immediately hereafter.

Now there are a lot of things that we can point out as wrong or misleading about it. For example it supports the idea that one cannot have faith and science both. The symbols around the “ignore contradicting evidence” section of the faith flow chart include: a crescent for Islam, the religion of Ibn al-Haytham and various other figures critical to the development of the scientific method; a cross for Christianity, the religion of such notable figures as alchemist and Bible code fanatic Issac Newton who provided calculus and our basic understanding of the universe until Einstein brought us General Relativity; a Star of David representing Einstein's Jewish identity, though (it should be noted) not his faith which is difficult to pin down but definitely not Jewish. possibly not his faith which is difficult to pin down and doesn't resemble the forms of Judaism I'm most familiar with but may well be Jewish.  (See the comments for the source of the correction.)

But after spending that paragraph pointing out that the dichotomy presented is misleading at best and intentionally hurtful at worst, I'm going to be going with that dichotomy. I've pointed out one problem with it, and there are many more, but let's overlook that because I want to focus on the people for whom that picture is largely accurate.

The fundamentalists trapped by their own efforts, urged on by those around them, in a bubble that keeps out or shoots down all contradicting evidence.

Put yourself in their shoes. Assume that they don't want to believe, they want to know.

Point to the part on the science side where they reach the point of knowing instead of believing.

That's a trick, of course. There is no such point. The flow chart never ends. Any theory can be overturned, any belief can be shattered on the rocks; all it takes is some conflicting evidence. Either you have to modify the theory to accommodate it, or you have to abandon the the theory. Either way, it turns out what you believed before was wrong. You didn't know.

That's part of what accepting science is. It's accepting that nothing can be known for sure. That, for what it's worth, happens to be true. But it also means that you never know, and if you're honest with yourself you never get to say “I know”. Because in two minutes someone might stumble over a piece of evidence that disproves the theory you believed and send you back to square one.

Now point to the part in the “Faith” side where you get to say “I know”.

Pretty much any place you want will work. So long as you stay in the “Ignore conflicting evidence” bubble you get to keep the idea forever and never have to say that what you thought you knew was wrong.

If you want to know, rather than believe, the fundamentalist model seems more appealing. Preacher tells you, it's settled, you know, and nothing can change that. Of course you could be wrong. But you never know that you're wrong. Because you never allow for the possibility that you might be wrong. How could you be? You don't believe, you know.

From that point of view the inherent instability of science could seem downright frightening. You never reach the point where you get to stop. There is no end. You never reach the point where you can say “I know this”, only the point where you can say “Given the available evidence, this theory fits best and has loads of support, but the possibility still exists that it could be overturned.”

Thus a desire to know seems to reinforce fundamentalists' isolationism and fight against science. They want it to be simple. “They said it in church, it's true, done.” We see this in people who say, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it”, or “I don't believe Jesus is the savior, I know he is.” The desire to know, the desire for certainty, seems to push people to cling to things that don't get changed, or don't seem to get changed.

Consider this quote from Men In Black: “Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you'll know tomorrow.”

It's a picture of change. It's a picture of not knowing. It's revealing that the world is full of uncertainty.

Now compare that with someone who says that they're the purveyor of a religious tradition that remains true to the words of someone who lived two thousand years ago. It doesn't matter if it's not true, because the picture presented is one of certainty and lack of change: this was true then and it is true now. You can know.

Of course, there is an instability in the whole fundamentalist side of things. That is that science marches on. As early as Plato, we see religion incorporating what was then the cutting edge of scientific knowledge. The trouble is that now, that very same stuff seems absurdly unscientific. So if you start a religion right now, accepting all of the scientific theories accepted right now, and then don't change, eventually you're going to be believing things that science left by the wayside because it never stops changing. It never stops improving.

And those improvements can sometimes break through the bubble, and when they do... disaster.

At this point I direct your attention to Fred Clark; some excerpts are here but read the whole thing:
From the sound of what your aunt described, that's going to be the really tricky part for you, because she says you were always taught that everything must be accepted unconditionally — that it mustn't be tested and that it all, every bit of it, must be held on to forever. All of it or none of it.
And, based on what I heard from your aunt, you were always told that the whole concoction was inseparable — an all-or-nothing, take-it-or-leave-it deal. Instead of being encouraged, or commanded, to test everything and hold on to the good, you were told that you must either hold on to everything or abandon it all. And you were told that these were your only possible choices.
The all-or-nothing bill of goods she sold you when you were younger really is evil. It invites a crisis of its own making. It batters a child with a series of cruel non-sequiturs: If the earth is more than 6,000 years old, it says, then Jesus doesn't love you. If there weren't dinosaurs in Noah's flood, it says, then life is meaningless. If Isaiah was anything other than a carnival fortune-teller, whispering secrets to be decoded millennia later by the magic formula, then all hope is illusion. 
This all-or-nothing mixture of sense and nonsense is a house built on sand. Eventually, it will be tested and it will fail the test. And it will fall with a great crash.
When one knows, then one doesn't need to test. That's what knowing is. And when one is trying to sell something as the Honest to God (emphasis on “God”) known truth, then one can't let doubt seep in anywhere. Thus instead of “Test everything, hold on to the good”, which is a statement from (Christian) faith that I think is pretty well compatible with the scientific method, the seller teaches “Test nothing. You already know. I said so.”

This puts everything on the same level. Everything is known and thus untested. Everything has to be untested because doubt could undermine the whole game. “If my pastor was wrong about X, could he also be wrong about Y?” And if I'm right that a desire to know, a desire for certainty, plays a role in the embrace of fundamentalism, that's the kind of question a fundamentalist doesn't want to answer or ask.

And so the whole thing can come crashing down.

We know this because it has happened. There is evidence. But those within the bubble ignore conflicting evidence, so they don't necessarily know this. They may have been taught the all or nothing approach to keep conflicting evidence of any kind out, but what should that worry them? They know all these things are true. They have certainty.

I think that's the problem with those who use the “I don't want to believe; I want to know” quote against religion. The fundamentalists are there beckoning, “We already know, come inside and you can know too,” where science offers only “We don't know for certain, but we can offer increasingly close approximations of the truth.” If you want to know now, fundamentalist religion seems to have the better offer because they claim to know already, where as scientists are still working on it with no end in the flowchart. Certainly no end in sight.

I want to close by saying that while the (forgotten) recent usage of “I don't want to believe; I want to know” was what got the phrase stuck in my head and eventually led to the post, it was not one of the seemingly endless times I've seen it used against religion. It was used appropriately and well, it just set off memories of it being used badly.


[Back to the image]

The image contains two flow charts. The first, labeled “Science”, goes like this:

1) Start. Go to 2).
2) Get an idea. Go to 3).
3) Preform an experiment. Go to 4).
4) Does the evidence support the idea? Yes = Go to 5). No = Go to a).
5) Theory created. Go to 6)
6) Use theory to better understand the universe. Go to 7). (This box is surrounded in yellow border with yellow stars.)
7) Discover new evidence. Go to 8)
8) Can theory be modified to explain the new evidence. No = Go to b). Yes = Go to 9)
9) Improve theory. Go to 6).

a) Bad idea. Go to 2).
b) Revolution! Go to 2).


The second, labeled “Faith”, goes like this:

1) Start. Go to 2)
2) Get an idea. Go to 3)
3) Ignore contradicting evidence. Go to 4) (This box is surrounded by a red border and religious symbols.)
4) Keep idea forever. Go to 5).
5) End.


  1. Yes. Exactly.
    For me science and faith work pretty similarly, collected information and interpreting data and making religion that can apply in a certain context.
    I usually think of religions (and cultures, too) as conceptual models of the universe and ways of life, kinda similar to scientific models. The earth isn't really exactly made of layers or plates in the way we talk about it. We model electron distribution and groundwater flow and celestial mechanics etc. etc. in ways that are often grossly simplified, but as long as we are aware of that, it works.

  2. "a Star of David representing Einstein's Jewish identity, though (it should be noted) not his faith which is difficult to pin down but definitely not Jewish."

    Eh, I dunno. His vaguely deistic/pantheistic impersonal God isn't that far off from the Spinozan tradition.

    1. Meant to reply to this earlier, apparently I don't know enough about the various traditions of Judaism.

      I've been debating whether should I edit the original post to reflect what you said. Not a stealth edit (those are for typos and formatting errors) a strikethrough of the original phrase with a correction to follow.

    2. Up to you, really. I think there's not that much difference between a correction in a comment and one in the post.

      That said, with my own posts I will generally do both. That way the article is correct for anyone who comes along later and doesn't read the comments, but the comments contain the correction for people who've already read the article and are now following discussion in the comments.

  3. I'm fairly outraged by that poster, and it's making it difficult for me to respond to the meat of the post. So I'll just roll with my outrage.

    Beyond the SERIOUS issues of conflating "faith" with insular, unexamined thought (OMG THERE ARE SO MANY ISSUES WITH THAT), I take a large amount of umbrage at the idea that "science" is always done by perfect human beings who never, ever become so attached to their preconceptions that they're always totally willing to re-examine their biases. I suppose the thrust of the poster is that Science (capital S) overcomes these things over time (the idea of "Science Marches On"), even if hindered by individual crappy scientists (little s)...

    ...BUT that paradigm baldly conflicts with the "faith" portion, because Faiths (big F) *do* evolve and change over time. It is not, for example, Christian mainstream belief that the earth is the center of the universe. (There are a few fringe groups, yes, but that's why I said "mainstream".) That's a specific example of a specific Faith evolving over time, and incorporating evidence and data into itself.

    Are there individual people whose "faith" (little f) is insular and unexamined? Yes. Are there individual people whose "science" (little s) is insular and unexamined? YES. But. Does the latter affect the over-time evolution of Science as a whole? Debatable, but probably no. Does the former affect the over-time evolution of Faith as a whole? Again, very probably not, based on the evidence we have to date.

    So, basically, that poster is bad and the maker should feel bad.

    1. I find there's a fairly simple pattern with Big-Ass Science/science fanboys/New Atheists/whatever you want to call them: If they encounter an idea or evidence that calls into question someone else's prejudices or core beliefs, they follow the left chart. If they encounter an idea or evidence that calls into question their *own* prejudices and beliefs, they follow the right flowchart. See for example most of evo psych, Elevatorgate, evidence-free self-contradictory claims that belief without evidence is inherently harmful--there's a lot of examples.

      I think pretty much everyone does it at least some of the time, to be honest, but most people aren't quite so outspokenly hypocritical about it.

    2. I'm sure volumes could be written about the things wrong with the image, for they are many, but the reason I limited myself to one paragraph was that I wanted to get to the part where I say that for those whom the "faith" side is fairly accurate (for those in the bubble) it can be a lot more appealing because it represents stability where the "science" side is a picture of never ending instability.

    3. Oh, I completely understand why you left it to one paragraph; it's a lead in to your larger point. I just apparently couldn't resist derailing! *sheepish smile*

    4. @Froborr, yeah, but I think there's also a mixture of racism tied up into it. I'm struck by how often these things feel the need to include symbols of Islam in them, when the maker may well have never spoken about faith with an actual Muslim person. Who needs to speak to Muslims about their faith, amiright? We can just read a summary on Wikipedia and we're good to go!

      This is particularly annoying when people use "Sharia law" as though it is synonymous with "any law that is steeped in brutal misogyny". I know very little about Islam either as a religion or how it is practiced in various places in the world, but I *do* know it's WAY more complicated than that. Which apparently puts me way ahead of the game compared to the people throwing around the term on the internet.

      So, hypocrisy, yes. Othering, yes. Racism, yes. These are not good things, in my opinion. / derail

    5. I took two... semesters (I guess) of Arabic through my area's adult education system. I've forgotten almost all of it.

      My teacher spoke Arabic as a second language and English as an I don't even know the number language. (He was Kurdish, and Kurdish was his first language.) I learned a number of things from him that had nothing to do with the course.

      I learned that speaking correctly wasn't necessarily required to be understood. Sometimes he'd say something in English that was clearly wrong according to any rules you cared to apply, but crystal clear in meaning.

      I learned that it's more complicated than that. The Iraq war had benefited his family and done it to such a degree that a relative who lived in Iran was hoping we'd invade there next. Before that point I'd never really considered the good that came out of it, just the lies that led into it and the death toll. It forced me to accept that even things that are clearly wrong can do real good for real people, and if I didn't admit that to myself I was making those people invisible.

      I also learned a little bit (a very little bit) about the Quran and specifically how a disagreement about the meaning of one phrase means the difference between a headscarf and a burqa. One phrase, not in translation but in the original language with vowels included, and it makes all that difference. The Quran is filled with phrases.

      The idea that you can just say "Sharia law" and have it mean something seems absurd to me.

      I recently (this morning) was in a lecture where someone was talking about the great and evil amorphous Other, he described an anti-marriage equality ad and pointed out that, even if everything said in the ad were true (something he seemed to think unlikely) every use of the word "They" in the ad would have to refer to a different group of people but by leaving them as an undescribed "they" it made it seem like it was a single shadowy entity of evil.

      "Sharia law" as used in American discourse seems to do the same thing. It sticks all beliefs that relate to Islam together as if they're all the same. Then it pulls out the worst elements it can find in that diverse collection of beliefs and tries to paint them as representative of the whole.

      Besides which, the only people trying to break down the separation of Church and State in this country right now are Christians. So if Sharia law, of whatever flavor, is ever instituted it won't be Muslims we have to blame for it.

      So long as separation of church and state survives and is enforced, Sharia law will never be instituted in the US. Scared of Sharia law? Fight tooth and nail against those who would break down the barrier between church and state. I'll give you a hint on how to find them: They're not Islamic.

    6. In the UK we do, sort of, have people trying to set up Sharia. But it's very sort of - it's basically building on the existing, secular, system by which if all parties in a dispute agree they can be bound by an arbitration system chosen by them rather than the normal legal system. Note, everyone has to agree - and the penalties that can be imposed are quite limited.

      So while people can still argue that the system oppresses women, the women have to be complicit in their oppression, which puts it in the same general place as veiling - the women say they want it, and telling them that they're wrong to want it becomes a separate problem.

    7. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    8. TW rape

      They get exactly the same rights. They choose not to use them, just as they choose not to go bare-faced when doing so would upset their families. (Not much of a "choice", when going the other way might - I say might, because I have no solid data here - mean being left with no useful skills, no social support network, and only the benevolence of the government to rely on. Which is much the same thing that I've seen happen to white women who happened to have been raped, because that doesn't happen to "nice girls".)

      So you tell me the right answer, brave person who doesn't even use an alias: how do you solve this problem? Do you ban all veils everywhere? (Not working so well for France.) Do you simply ban any religion you don't like? Do you really think this will do anything other than driving the behaviour you don't approve of underground?

      My solution: a real education system that actually tries to teach people stuff, rather than obsessing over exam results. Make people better educated and they're both more able to go off on their own from a bad domestic situation and more willing to think of doing so.

    9. Authors mod their own posts and this is mine. I considered the above deleted comment not worthy of response because it appeared mean spirited, jerkish, to treat the real problems of racism and victim blaming as if they were jokes, and generally not be appropriate.

      Originally I threw it in the spamtrap, which made it appear to disappear, but when I saw that Firedrake had responded to it, and thus appeared to be responding to nothing, I switched to having it not be spammed but instead appear marked as deleted so it would be clear to all that there was something there.

      And now you all know how I wield the modhammer when it is placed in my hands.

  4. I suspect that where the "want to know" idea comes from is in response to people who say that faith cannot be subject to reason - like C. S. Lewis's example of the trusted friend who one day does something strange and nasty, but whom you continue to trust because he's your friend. (I'm doing this from memory, so I may have the details wrong.)

    Saying that reason can't be used to talk about something always strikes me as a cop-out.

    1. Furthermore, it betrays the exegetical traditions of the Abrahamic religions - there was a lot of very vigorous applications of reason to their faith, played out through history in midrash/apologia/tafsir. The part where people say "Pastor/Priest said it, therefore it is so" seems to be mostly grown out of an apparatus of the Catholic Church - the doctrinal infallibility of the Bishop of Rome when speaking ex cathedra from the Throne Of Peter. (In my lay historian opinion.)

      It is really strange that so many people take a faith that textually encourages the laity to test things and keep what is good and choose not to test anything at all. Whether that is science or religion.

    2. Unfortunately what this mostly comes down to is "humans are broken, and some non-trivial fraction of them will take potentially wonderful things and use them to be nasty to each other". Which may well be true, but doesn't help. (Still looking for a solution. Other than "become mad scientist, rewrite human nature".)

  5. More on topic, now that I've gotten that poster-rant out of my system.

    I like this post. +1. I think it also highlights -- well, for me, at least -- how "know" and "belief" aren't always clear-cut. A lot of the things I "know", I don't REALLY know. I know that, oh, say, men have walked on the moon, but I didn't witness this first-hand or speak to the people who were there or evaluate this in any logical, scientific way. I could probably visit a telescope powerful enough to see the flag, but I've never bothered to do so. Is my "knowledge" that we put men on the moon genuine knowing or just belief?

    (I've never really understood the Mulder poster. The sentiment I understand -- there are things I want to believe and struggle with -- but it doesn't seem to apply to Mulder. He doesn't want to believe; he DOES believe. He just wants facts. If anything the poster seems to apply to Scully better in some ways; she sometimes seems to want to believe in order to be able to communicate with Mulder on his plane of thought, but she's also more interested in facts BEFORE belief (rather than AFTER, which is Mulder's preferred order of things). My random two cents on the X-Files.)

    1. I remember an episode of the X-Files where Scully was correctly able to determine that the apparent Biblicalish plagues were not the work of the devil (the miracles were elsewhere and real, the plagues were man made fabrications) on the basis of her religious upbringing teaching her that God never lets the devil steal the show.

      It was interesting, because she came to the correct conclusion, that this was an instance of mundane happenings, not through any of her preferred methods of skepticism and inquiry and so forth, but through her faith.

      Of course it would be more interesting if her preferred methods revealed things to be mundane more often so that the message didn't become, "If you want to prove something isn't a miracle: use faith."

  6. Great post. I think what the capital-S Science folks won't acknowledge is that the structure of thinking on the right isn't a representation of religion, but is a representation of an authoritarian culture. Religion can definitely be authoritarian, but you can have an authoritarian society that's totally secular. It's a fictional example (albeit a critique of a real authoritarian society), but the classic example is in Nineteen Eighty-Four where 2 + 2 = 5.

  7. As someone who doesn't hold a belief either way on the existence of gods, I can appreciate that "ignoring contradictory evidence" actually describes authoritarianism. But I had the impression that faith was really about reaching conclusions in the absence of evidence, or at least testable evidence. I've often used "knowledge" to mean propositions supported by testable evidence, but I admit that my usage here may be incorrect.

  8. I've often used "knowledge" to mean propositions supported by testable evidence, but I admit that my usage here may be incorrect.

    In the ideal "to know" is "to know with certainty". And that's what separates what you know from the much broader category of what you believe (presumably you believe what you know so your belief encompasses your knowledge but is not limited to it.)

    In the real world nothing can be known with certainty so it's left up to each individual to determine the bar for "know" themselves. Do I know my furnace is on because I can hear it? That sound could easily be simulated but given the unlikelihood of anyone taking the trouble to do so I feel very comfortable saying that I know the furnace is on, I know the moon landing wasn't faked, I know... but if we want to be technical, and in the main post I really was, I don't know any of these things. I believe them because they are supported by evidence which I consider to be sufficient, but I can never be 100% sure of anything, which is why in everyday speech "know" is almost never used in the technical sense.

    Which is sort of a long way, of saying that unless you're making fine epistemological distinctions, your use of the word "knowledge" is not incorrect.


    Also, in theory faith is about believing without objectively testable evidence in support of the thing believed, which is why the term is so broadly applicable (faith in your friends, faith in god, faith in the Red Sox) but in practice it is used both more broadly and more narrowly and people on both sides will vigorously, sometimes viciously, defend why their version of what "faith" means is RIGHT and anything else is WRONG.

    1. Faith that an undetectable being exists, or faith that the being doesn't exist, is not the same as faith in one's friends or faith in a team, unless you're talking about faith that the being is good. Whether someone believes or in the existence of gods or believes in their non-existence is not my concern, but it becomes my concern if the person wants me to hold the same belief - that's when I would want evidence for the position.

    2. Whether someone believes or in the existence of gods or believes in their non-existence is not my concern, but it becomes my concern if the person wants me to hold the same belief - that's when I would want evidence for the position.

      Of course, and understandably so. :)

      But there is a difference between "I believe in X" and "I believe in X, and therefore YOU...". This is a pluralistic community that comprises people of many different beliefs, and as such you will not find much support for the latter proposition here. You are (at best) preaching to the choir and (at worst) potentially creating the impression that there has been a misunderstanding about the post since Chris is not saying that people have the right to push their beliefs onto other people.

    3. Faith that an undetectable being exists, or faith that the being doesn't exist, is not the same as faith in one's friends or faith in a team, unless you're talking about faith that the being is good.

      I was talking about that, sort of. "Faith in your friends" will always in my mind have echoes of Return of the Jedi in which case it's belief that they will be able to complete a given task in spite of a total lack of evidence that they will (remember, none of them know it's a trap.)

      I was, you'll recall, talking about how the meaning of the word faith allows it to be applied broadly and each example was of a different use of it.

      1) Faith in your friends means you believe in their in their goodness, loyalty or ability when these things either cannot or have not been demonstrated.
      2) Faith in god means you believe in the existence of a being that cannot or has not been objectively demonstrated.
      3) Faith in the Red Sox means that you believe either:
      a) they're the best team out there, and best is impossible to objectively demonstrate
      b) they'll win which given the confluence of factors necessary for that outcome including, notably, random chance, cannot possibly be objectively supported.

  9. "You are (at best) preaching to the choir and (at worst) potentially creating the impression that there has been a misunderstanding about the post since Chris is not saying that people have the right to push their beliefs onto other people." - Ana, I'm sorry for giving that impression. I was trying to distinguish myself from the anti-theist who rejects a right to believe in the existence of gods while pushing belief in their nonexistence.

    Chris, your list of faith items seems to mix items that have no objective existence (numbers 1 and 3) with items that would have that existence but this cannot be ascertained by humans (number 2 and 4). Or at least, the last one cannot be ascertained before the game. So to me, the idea of faith that a god exists, or faith that a god doesn't exist, sounds the same as if the word was replaced with something like "table." I wouldn't label either of these as wrong, but both seem incomprehensible to me. More or less the same reaction that one of my children had to watching Veggie Tales at a relative's house - she said the characters talked about "God" but she didn't see anyone by that name in the video.


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