Mon
Nov 9 2009 5:16pm

A Fact More Indigestible than Evolution

Ever wonder how people can believe Elvis and Hitler are still alive?

NeuropathSad fact is, we are bunglers when it comes to believing things we can’t immediately see. We are prone to over-simplify. We are prone to feel certain about dubious things. We are prone to cherry-pick what confirms our views, and to selectively overlook what challenges them. We are prone to understand complex phenomena in psychological terms.

The list goes on and on.

Science can be seen as a kind of compensatory mechanism, a family of principles and practices that allow us to overcome enough of our cognitive shortcomings to waddle toward an ever more comprehensive understanding of the world. Unlike ‘theory’ in the conspiracy or detective novel sense, scientific theory is the result of processes developed over centuries to correct for our biases. If the technological transformation of the world over the past few centuries provides us with a stunning demonstration of science’s theoretical power, then the thousands of years of muddling that precede that transformation provide an equally impressive demonstration of our theoretical incompetence absent science.

Of course, believers in prescientific worlds generally don’t know anything about our theoretical incompetence, nor would they want to. We are prone to cherish our beliefs, especially those learned at the collective knee of family and tradition. Our incompetence, in other words, is such that we’re loathe to acknowledge our incompetence. Imagine every Christian, Moslem, and Hindu in the world suddenly shrugging and saying, “Meh, what do I know?” The sad fact is that we are capable of strapping bombs to ourselves, killing untold numbers of innocents, on the strength of things like familial hearsay and ancient guesswork.

 

We can believe that hard, that stupidly. We, not just “those crazies.”

Science is the cruel stranger, the one who tells us how it is whether we like it or not. Human vanity being what it is, you might say it’s amazing it succeeds at all in advancing theories that not only contradict received dogmas, but cut against our psychological grain. I sometimes think it’s this ability, the power to press home outright offensive portraits of our world and ourselves, that most distinguishes it as a claim-making institution.

Take evolution. Sure, you can slather layer after layer of laudatory rhetoric across the evolutionary portrait, say, eulogize our biochemical kinship with the totality of living things, or lionize those few crucial adaptations that make us human, but it still leaves us sucking on some bitter cultural and psychological pills. No matter how much you gild our particular branch of the evolutionary tree, it’s still just another branch, random in origin, indeterminate in destination.

According to most traditional accounts of our origins, we’re something really special—like really, really.

So here’s the question: What other bitter pills does science hold in store for us? The cruel stranger isn’t finished, you can bet the family farm on that simply because nothing is final in science. So what other stomach churning surprises does it hold in store for us? And what happens if it begins telling us things that are out and out indigestible?

What if science, the greatest institutional instrument of discovery in history, starts telling us there’s no such thing as choices, or stranger still, selves? What if the portrait of humanity that science ultimately paints strikes us as immediately and obviously inhuman?

This is the question I ask in Neuropath through the lens of one man’s troubled life.


R. Scott Bakker is the author of The Darkness That Comes Before, The Warrior Prophet, and The Thousdandfold Thought, a trilogy that Publishers Weekly calls “a work of unforgettable power.” He is also the author of The Judging Eye. He spent his childhood exploring the bluffs of Lake Erie’s north shore and his youth studying literature, languages, and philosophy. He now lives in London, Ontario, with his wife, Sharron, and their cat, Scully.

16 comments
Ken Neth
1. neth
Scott, I see you're taking it easy with first foray into the wider audience at Tor.com
Dan Sparks
2. RedHanded
I think those pills are only bitter based on your perception. For everything that someone may balk at or face stomach churning, like cloning to some, (not me) lets say, there are things out there that have greatly improved the quality of life for most of the world's population.

Science is about discovering the objective world, about figuring out how things work and why things are the way they are. I don't see how that can be a bad thing. Science can't tell us that we have no choices or selves, the use of the scientific method is an alternative, which means there was a choice involved in how to search out knowledge, and science isn't some disembodied non existant that works on its own, you have to ask..who is doing the science, who is proving or disproving?

As a work of fiction I do think it would be an interesting route to take, I did read the first chapter posted on this website and it seems interesting so far and I plan to continue reading.
Acai Berry Detox
3. Acai Berry Detox
They willfully distort the truth to make it appear silly. The fact is that humans, monkeys and apes evolved from a common ancestor. I told this to one of those people and they said to prove it. I told them to read their bibles. If they deny that their god, whom they claim created all living things was not a 'common ancestor' to all living things, then they just denied their own 'faith'. Those who didn't walk away flustered, tried to hit me.

Acai Berry Detox
Brian Kaul
4. bkaul
Sounds like it could make for a fascinating fantasy novel. In reality though, I don't think it's accurate to look at science as a monolithic, institutional arbiter of truth like that. At its core, it's a method. We use certain techniques to analyze our observations and make sense of the data. But either way, it's impossible that "science" could show the world to be an incomprehensible place full of non-selves. The very foundational premises of the scientific method assume that the world is rational and comprehensible. Almost all early scientists, even the non-Christians among them, believed in the existence of a God who created an orderly universe that we are capable of learning objective truths about. If philosophical assertions that undercut those premises were true, then people could not possibly determine that through the means of science, since the basis of their methodology requires them to assume otherwise. That's not to say that such questions should be ignored by philosophers; science simply isn't a tool that is capable of examining them.

Scientists come up with theories to try to explain the evidence they observe. Those theories are not themselves facts: the evidence is. For example, gravity is not a fact: it's our best explanation of the fact that two massive bodies are drawn together in a predictable manner. Evolution is not a fact: it's our best explanation of the facts that living creatures have been observed to adapt to their environments, and that there are striking similarities in the design of apparently diverse species. Calling the explanations ("theories") that scientists develop "facts" is a category mistake. They're simply not. As a scientist, if I have a hypothesis about how something in nature works, I can perform an experiment, observe what happens, and determine whether the factual evidence is consistent with my proposed explanation of a phenomenon, but my explanation - even if it's entirely accurate - will never itself be a fact. It is not the universe itself, but merely a model of it ... and as such, is much more useful.
Marcus W
5. toryx
I think that as long as religion continues to stand as the foundation of human experience, we'll have people refusing to accept physical evidence in favor of their beliefs. Believing that Elvis is still alive isn't really all that different from believing in God, Jesus, Mohammad or Kali.

I think there are two particularly bitter truths that science may yet hold for us: The conclusive proof that there is no spirit or soul, and/or the undeniable evidence that there is no such thing as a life beyond death.

I'm not particularly convinced that science will be able to prove either of these things and I'm even less certain that any sort of definitive evidence would be accepted by the public. But those would definitely be bitter pills, especially for agnostics.
Dan Sparks
6. RedHanded
@5 toryx

I think there are two particularly bitter truths that science may yet hold for us: The conclusive proof that there is no spirit or soul, and/or the undeniable evidence that there is no such thing as a life beyond death.

I agree that those could be bitter truths, but I do think it is based on perception. Those are two things I beleive already (no soul and no after life) and I don't find it bitter, but again that's my perspective. I don't think science could ever rule those things out because they can't even be brought into the realm of science..there is no way to test for the unknowable or unseeable by definition.

The whole point of faith is that you don't need proof, so regardless of proof or lack thereof people tend to believe what they want to believe or afraid not to believe.
Brian Kaul
7. bkaul
That's not the point of faith at all, at least in the Christian sense of the word. (I can't speak for those of other religions). As C.S. Lewis put it:
I must talk in this chapter about what the Christians call Faith. Roughly speaking, the word Faith seems to be used by Christians in two senses or on two levels, and I will take them in turn. In the first sense it means simply Belief -accepting or regarding as true the doctrines of Christianity. That is fairly simple. But what does puzzle people-at least it used to puzzle me-is the fact that Christians regard faith in this sense as a virtue. I used to ask how on earth it can be a virtue - what is there moral or immoral about believing or not believing a set of statements? Obviously, I used to say, a sane man accepts or rejects any statement, not because he wants to or does not want to, but because the evidence seems to him good or bad. If he were mistaken about the goodness or badness of the evidence that would not mean he was a bad man, but only that he was not very clever. And if he thought the evidence bad but tried to force himself to believe in spite of it, that would be merely stupid.

Well, I think I still take that view. But what I did not see then - and a good many people do not see still - was this. I was assuming that if the human mind once accepts a thing as true it will automatically go on regarding it as true, until some real reason for reconsidering it turns up. In fact, I was assuming that the human mind is completely ruled by reason. But that is not so. For example, my reason is perfectly convinced by good evidence that anaesthetics do not smother me and that properly trained surgeons do not start operating until I am unconscious. But that does not alter the fact that when they have me down on the table and clap their horrible mask over my face, a mere childish panic begins inside me. I start thinking I am going to choke, and I am afraid they will start cutting me up before I am properly under. In other words, I lose my faith in anaesthetics. It is not reason that is taking away my faith: on the contrary, my faith is based on reason. It is my imagination and emotions. The battle is between faith and reason on one side and emotion and imagination on the other.

When you think of it you will see lots of instances of this. A man knows, on perfectly good evidence, that a pretty girl of, his acquaintance is a liar and cannot keep a secret and ought not to be trusted; but when he finds himself with hey- his mind loses its faith in that bit of knowledge and he starts thinking, 'Perhaps she'll be different this time,' and once more makes a fool of himself and tells her something he ought not to have told her. His senses and emotions have destroyed his faith in what he really knows to be true. Or take a boy learning to swim. His reason knows perfectly well that an unsupported human body will not necessarily sink in water he has seen dozens of people float and swim. But the whole question is whether he will be able to go on believing this when the instructor takes away his hand and leaves him unsupported in the water-or whether he will suddenly cease to believe it and get in a fright and go down.

Now just the same thing happens about Christianity. I am not asking anyone to accept Christianity if his best reasoning tells him that the weight of the evidence is against it. That is not the point at which Faith comes in. But supposing a man's reason once decides that the weight of the evidence is for it. I can tell that man what is going to happen to him in the next few weeks. There will come a moment when there is bad news, or he is in trouble, or is living among a lot of other people who do not believe it, and all at once his emotions will rise up and carry out a sort of blitz on his belief. Or else there will come a moment when he wants a woman, or wants to tell a lie, or feels very pleased with himself, or sees a chance of making a little money in some way that is not perfectly fair: some moment, in fact, at which it would be very convenient if Christianity were not true. And once again his wishes and desires will carry out a blitz. I am not talking of moments at which any real new reasons against Christianity turn up. Those have to be faced and that is a different matter. I am talking about moments when a mere mood rises up against it.

If there's undeniable evidence proving something to be true, then denying that truth would be absurd. It's virtuous to remain faithful to what one is convinced is true; it would be mere foolishness to willfully try to convince one's self of a lie.
Marcus W
8. toryx
Redhanded @ 6:

I agree that the bitterness of those truths (or any truths) are based largely on perspective. But I also think there is often a small, quiet, oft ignored part of everyone that hopes, in matters of the soul and a life after death, that just maybe they're wrong.

Knowing without a doubt the truth about those two things would be bitter because it is the end of all hope whatsoever in something new. There may be some who will not be bothered by that, but I think most would be.

I'm inclined also to agree that it's not likely for science to give those answers, particularly not in our lifetimes but I'm not one to underestimate the possibility of accomplishment. It may well be that the evidence needed to confirm the hypothesis is not as difficult as we're inclined to believe. Advancement can lead to almost anything.

bkaul @ 7:

Boy, C.S. Lewis sure was a great writer. But the problem I have with that quote is that belief in the success of anaesthetics, or the body's propensity to float in water and believing in a God (and the relevant articles that go along with any given religion) are not at all the same thing. You can witness a body floating, witness the effects of anathesthia or interview those who have learned to swim or undergone an operation without experiencing the pain of it.

By and large, the existence of God and the tenents of faith are entirely based on belief. It is without witness, without direct evidence of any kind.

Undeniable evidence in most things outside of religion are of far greater reliabilty than those that are offered by people of faith. A Christian will offer many things to me that they believe to be undeniable evidence but unfortunately, none of those things are anywhere near as effective or reliable as seeing a body float in water.
Brian Kaul
9. bkaul
Oh, I don't deny for a second that the evidence for (or against) God's existence and nature is more abstract and philosophical than it is empirical and scientific. You're not going to go measure his properties in a laboratory. But that doesn't imply that such belief requires no evidence at all, much less that it is in spite of the evidence. I would suggest that science is an ill-suited tool to apply to metaphysical questions, but that doesn't mean that the questions aren't valid or that there's not a definite answer to be found. And it certainly doesn't imply that people who believe they have found the answers to some such questions are delusional and not basing their beliefs on real evidence, whether or not they're actually correct.
Dan Sparks
10. RedHanded
bkaul

Sorry, didn't mean to say that was the whole point of faith. It's what faith is though. Believing without proof. I understand the point of why some people have faith, it's nice to feel that sense of security (even though I obviously believe it is a false sense of security) that there is something after this world or more to it than can be figured out by the human mind. I just don't believe like that is all.

Also I completely agree that no one should be forced to agree with something that they don't, then again no one can force a mind to work or to think what others desire.

@ 8 toryx

But I also think there is often a small, quiet, oft ignored part of everyone that hopes, in matters of the soul and a life after death, that just maybe they're wrong.

I am confused on to whether you are talking about theists or atheists here. I'm assuming atheists?

I agree that many would not like hearing that there is no soul or afterlife for fact but I don't believe that not having a soul and there being no afterlife is an end to a hope for something new. Every second that you are alive you have a choice to change if you want and to be what you want to be. You cannot change past mistakes or choices but you can change the future, you can always do better, you can always reevaluate your thoughts and beliefs and actions, it's about choosing to be who you want to be and choosing to think (because in every issue there is a choice, the choice to think about it or not). To me that sounds like a lot of hope, no matter how bad you screw up you can think it through and do better the next time.

It seems people are so quick to assume that this life has no value except to somehow get into eternity, or that this life is so bad that we have to hope for something better when we die. Well I think that's crap, life is meant to be lived. I have one hope and that is when I am on my deathbed (barring some senseless accident of course) that I can look back on my life and say that I lived it and it was great because it was mine and I chose to make it count. How many things do people put off or put up with because they think they will live forever somehow or that they have to power to act in this world?
Bradley Beek
11. beeker73
CS Lewis makes a great argument, unless that argument is applied to religion.

Trying to convince yourself of something despite evidence to the contrary is indeed foolish and stupid.
Marcus W
12. toryx
Redhanded @ 10:

Sorry, I was speaking of atheists. I'm not denying the existence of hope (especially for atheists). I was just saying that when push comes to shove, most people can't help hoping that there's something more after death. Even when they absolutely believe there isn't. And that's why the concrete scientific discovery that, in fact, there isn't anything else would be a pretty bitter pill to swallow.

I have to admit, Mr. Bakker's suggestion that science might inform us that we do not have any choices at all (as psychology does sometimes seem to suggest) is definitely a pretty scary concept too.
Brian Kaul
13. bkaul
RedHanded@10:
It's what faith is though. Believing without proof. I understand the point of why some people have faith, it's nice to feel that sense of security (even though I obviously believe it is a false sense of security) that there is something after this world or more to it than can be figured out by the human mind. I just don't believe like that is all.

My point is exactly that this description isn't what faith is at all, in the sense that applies to belief in God. Theists actually believe that God really exists as an objective fact, not just a feel-good make-believe game. They aren't trying to delude themselves to feel better. Of course you may not accept their evidence or reasoning, and may reach different conclusions, but that doesn't mean that they're choosing to believe something because it makes them feel good, with no basis for rationally reaching their conclusions. To pretend that people are somehow deciding to believe something that they don't really have any reason to think is true might make it easy to write off their position, and there might even be some unfortunate, unthinking people that it's true of. But it's not true of a belief in God in general. The sheer number of great intellectual thinkers among Christians, and the sheer number of Christians or other theists in the physical sciences and engineering (hardly professions that lend themselves to irrational thought patterns) should both attest to there being a rational basis for people to have a real (not pretended) belief in God.

Now, there is of course, an extent to which faith in the sense you speak of is inherent in believing just about anything. When you accept anything you're taught or anything you read, you're choosing to trust the authority of your source rather than experimenting for yourself. Anything you know about history is on the basis of faith in the accuracy of authorities. You can't go perform a scientific experiment to prove that Brutus betrayed Julius Caesar. You just have to have faith that the people who recorded the history were trustworthy. Generally that's a reasonably good assumption, and we have good reason for believing it, but the evidence is not scientific in nature. Similarly, science is entirely unsuitable to use for addressing moral questions. There's simply no way to scientifically prove that, say, pedophilia is immoral; we all know that it is, but this knowledge is not based on scientific proof. Science can't tell you that Beethoven was a greater musician than the Backstreet Boys or that William Shakespeare was a better writer than Edward George Bulwer-Lytton (of "It was a dark and stormy night" infamy) either. None of these are any less true simply because the evidence and our means for gathering it are not scientific in nature. Science can't prove any of these things, but that doesn't mean that people who believe them to be true are pretending to a belief in something that they aren't convinced is true on a rational basis. The lack of "proof" in this sense is not due to a lack of evidence, but only a lack of the very narrow, specific subset of evidence that scientific methods can be used to obtain.
Acai Berry Detox
14. Ray Harwood
Now that is what I call dogmatism !
Acai Berry Detox
15. Kristina Meister
It would be nice, in the science over religion debate, if people wouldn't constantly confuse logic with ontoloy. You cannot build your goal into your argument! Scientific method, when pursued properly does the opposite, since you are attempting to disprove you hypothesis and form a new one. Something stated by logic is only put forward as the ONLY answer left standing after rigorous attempts to disprove. Religion assumes it is true, and rather than apply logic to itself and attempt to disprove, it looks for ways to prove itself to outsiders that will sound logical but are in fct ontological.

People who are skeptical of those who speak truthfully about how the brain processes info (pattern application to random events, seeking security by claiming proof etc) has obviously ne'er studied any near science. The point is this: by behaving objectively toward the human intellect we are not decrying the "glory" or "magic" of humanity. In actuality, most of us are amazed and delighted that we got this far given the efficiency of our heuristic processors. We think it's amazing that some people (Galileo, etc) can shrug off the ease and efficiency of heuristics to come to a greater understanding.

The scientific method keeps us honest, but like a conscience, it's a voice for right IN OUR HEADS. We're still responsible for utilizig it correctly
Acai Berry Detox
16. lost child
@bkaul

faith
–noun
1.confidence or trust in a person or thing: faith in another's ability.
2.belief that is not based on proof.
3.belief in god or in the doctrines or teachings of religion.
- http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/faith

As I see it bkaul, you're altering the actual definition of the word faith to suit your own needs. The faith you describe is not faith at all, it is knowledge, acquired via reasoning, experimentation, personal experience, etc. This is not faith. The moment there is certainty, the moment someone claims "I know" the idea of faith is gone, replaced by knowledge, regardless of whether that knowledge is correct. A position that depends on the blatant altering of a definition simply underscores the inherent weakness of the position.

Your examples of things we take on faith and yet claim to know are quite accurate. The only reason we have any notion that Brutus killed Caesar is because it was written of. And because we have multiple sources that tell the same tale, we believe, at least in the general, that it actually happened. But it is still an act of faith. Everything we know about history is an act of faith, when it comes down to it. The nature of historic knowledge can be nothing else, because we cannot duplicate the result/experience.

Science, however, can. That is a requirement, that the results be replicable. And therein lies difference. Science can present a claim, and then provide the evidence, over and over, as to why the claim is correct. And then another claim will arise, and will demonstrate, over and over, and evetually through a continuous distillation, we arrive at something we think is probably correct. With a forever margin of error of course. It may take awhile, but science as a method, as an institution, will chug it's way closer and closer to an actual answer, providing evidence for that answer the entire way.

To the "Theists actually believe that God really exists as an objective fact, not just a feel-good make-believe game" all I can say is, knowing there is a god is not the same as having faith in a god. And if you're Christian, it is faith that is demanded, faith in the face of uncertainty, faith in the unknowable. The moment you know, the moment you are certain, you've lost your faith and replaced it with hubris and pride.

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