Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Weak Faith, Strong Faith

As the old joke goes, when the only tool you have is a hammer, all problems look like nails. Applying a single frame to a variety of problems is one of the underlying characteristics of many cognitive biases. Science, law, and faith are three popular frames that cover complex and contentious issues ranging from abortion to evolution, from global warming to the value of prayer in the schools. Let’s look at how they work.

Science bears the same relationship to knowledge as law does to justice. It’s a process, and as such inherently imperfect. To compensate for its imperfections, we choose certain biases. In American law, “innocent until proven guilty” is such a bias. It’s a deliberate attempt to make errors fall more heavily in one direction than another. The injustice of allowing some guilty people to escape is, we believe, less than the injustice of imprisoning an innocent person. The appeals process supplies quality assurance and quality control. Even so, mistakes occur. Law does not provide perfect justice.

The process of science is based on the experimental method. Through repeatable experiments, we test hypotheses. From the results, we develop theories, and those theories are tested in turn. Over time, the scientific community reaches a consensus, and that’s the state of scientific knowledge at a particular point in time. Inertia applies: it takes a lot of work and effort to build a case that will persuade the scientific community to accept a change, but once the change is accepted, it tends to stay accepted.

The burden of proof necessarily rests on the side challenging the consensus. That’s only fair and proper. Suggesting the entire scientific community professes a certain position because they’re either suffering from mass delusion or outright corruption strains credulity. Saying they’re wrong, on the other hand, is fair game — if you have the evidence to back it up. And the scientist who successfully overturns the consensus apple cart to create a new paradigm goes down in the history books. That’s a powerful incentive for change.

We must remember, on the other hand, Carl Sagan’s dictate, “The fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.” Science does not provide perfect knowledge.

I seldom take the time to study all the scientific literature on any issue, and in many areas would be unable to analyze it properly if I did. Nor do I take the time to study the details of a legal case prominent in the papers, and often don’t know the underlying law well enough to analyze it correctly if I did. I have to take the results on faith.

Faith can be a bright, shining beacon of certainty in a murky world, or it can be a weak thing, provisional and tentative. The first kind of faith trumpets itself as the possessor of Truth Revealed. (Or as Mark Twain puts it, “[Man is] the only one who’s got the true religion — several of them.”). The idea of certainty fills a deep-seated human need, and I understand the temptation. Uncertainty is inherently uncomfortable. The gospel of peace is the comfort of knowing. But faith, any more than science or law, does not reliably produce perfect truth.

Provisional faith is faith without certainty. Yes, perhaps all of reality could be an elaborate illusion, but that’s not the way to bet. We each make hundreds of assumptions as we go through each day, and we have no practical choice in the matter. Faith in some things is not an option. On the other hand, we’ve been wrong before. Like law and science, faith requires biases to work, along with a skeptical mind to provide checks and balances.

In place of justice, we have law. In place of knowledge, we have science. In place of truth, we have faith. Certain faith is easily visible in the religious sphere, but true believers are found in science and law and in every other discipline that attempts to standardize the chaos of reality.

Faith has a fundamental place in human affairs, but a weak and skeptical faith is worthy of more respect than the strong and bright kind. When someone is strong in his or her faith, certain of his or her rightness, absolute in knowledge of Truth, it's time to hold onto your wallets. Unchecked, the gospel of certainty become the opiate of its adherents.

Comfort can come at far too high a price.

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