John F Waterman
The works of John F Waterman

Blog 07.25.17 July 25, 2017

Hello again, friends.

It’s all a question of faith, right? Because after all what we believe is more important than what we know. Faith and knowledge and belief and truth have intersected, as they always have, to create the rather interesting situation we face today.

Five centuries ago, a person’s beliefs were just as important–to them and their peers–as they are today. And that’s where their effects ended. Sure, a ruler’s beliefs could dictate which of his subjects got offered privileges and which got death. One’s personal beliefs dictated his political views and how he dealt with his fellow humans, or even who got considered ‘human’. Half a millennium ago, though, beliefs could not affect the entire world’s ecology or the survival of the human species. That’s all different today–in ways I don’t think we’ve fully considered as a civilization. Each of us make decisions every day that affect our lives about objects and processes that our ancestors 25 generations ago could not have understood let alone imagined; and many of us make decisions that affect the future of our species concerning things that none of us can even see with our own limited senses.

In the sixteenth Century, superstitions such as the Earth being flat or the center of the universe; whether supernatural beings existed and had effects on mortals; or whether disease is caused by misfortune or malign forces were all pretty much harmless to the human species as a whole. People could believe pretty much anything they wanted to, whether as received knowledge from the preacher or Grandmother or just because of the evidence of ‘common sense’ (meaning what one could observe with the ‘senses’ of sight and hearing ‘common’ to all of us), and though they might prove deleterious to the individual or his society they didn’t endanger the species or the planet as a whole. I can prove this supposition because the human species managed to survive, as a whole, despite some pretty amazingly misinformed beliefs that ‘everyone knew’.

Then something that had been around for quite a while but known only to a limited, educated few really began to become prevalent and important to the survival of the species and daresay our entire world. It’s called the Scientific Method. In brief it defines a toolkit and skill set that actually allowed humans to use reason to determine which beliefs described reality in a useful fashion–and which did not. I credit its spread to movable type and the concomitant spread of literacy among a wider and wider audience with the spread of the scientific method, though there were certainly dozens of other factors that played a part as well.

Now humans had access to a set of mental disciplines they could use to distinguish hearsay and fantasy from reality and true causes for phenomena that had previously baffled hundreds of generations of truly intelligent thinkers. There is only one problem, though; humans are not rational thinkers. We’re rationalizers; we tend to believe something first and then find ‘evidence’ to back up what we already ‘know’. Our evolution as a species had for hundreds of thousands of years relied ‘believing’ received knowledge, custom and behavior literally ‘on faith’. Scientific inquiry and falsification of null hypotheses, on the other hand, require a curious mindset that needs to be taught–and carefully so for it to function properly. It has reached nowhere near full acceptance within our civilization, as evinced by the number of people who say ‘I believe in Evolution’ or get the definitions of ‘Law’ and ‘Theory’ mixed up when speaking about scientific concepts.

The Scientific Method is not the death of belief, and anyone who understands how it works knows that it isn’t. For me, at least, the existence of a force beyond ourselves is in the realm of belief; I have faith in Something which I don’t require anyone else to accept and needs not be falsified to prove Its existence to me. On the other hand, I’m not going to kill anyone if they don’t ‘believe’ the way I do or make decisions that might affect my entire civilization based on what other people tell me It ‘wants’ or doesn’t want…

Let’s agree to keep decisions about what happens in the ‘real’ world in the realm of rational thought, and keep our feelings about what we ‘believe’ to ourselves. There’s still room in the world for both belief and rationalism–for all of us. We’re going to need both to get us through what’s facing us.

Keep striving, folks.

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