This blog is about rational belief, and irrational belief ("Belief"), and how it explains everything from economic success to theories of Intelligent Design.
Rational belief is based on mathematical theories that can be tested in the laboratory. In contrast, "Beliefs" are not tested against any real-world observations in a scientific setting.
I am going to start with a leading-edge scientific theory, String Theory.
String Theory research illustrates the nature of slow changes that have been happening in science for hundreds of years. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/elegant/program.html
The entire basis of string theory is safe, because it is entirely theoretical. There is no way of currently testing any part of the theory experimentally. The mathematicians who are in this research area, and believe it offers insights to the fundamental nature of matter, are attracted by the elegance of the mathematical solutions, knowing that the ability to test the theory are years in the future.
Accordingly, despite the most elegant mathematics, string theory is not science, because science demands hypotheses, axioms, assertions, that can be tested in the real world by observation of experimentation.
If a theory cannot be tested by experimentation, then it attracts Believers.
Physics addresses the real world, in which experimentation and observations can be used to test the correctness of theory.
In the past, mathematics evolved to explain existing mysteries in the physical world. The order has slowly changed, to the point where mathematical theories today are substantially ahead of our ability to test the ideas.
I think this crossover process began with Sir Isaac Newton. When Newton published his Principia, he was creating new math to explain observations already made by astronomers, and drawing the logical conclusions from them regarding laws of motion. His theories also allowed scientists to make accurate predictions of previously unpredictable events in the physical world. As part of the larger picture, the mathematical tools he invented to assert his theories (calculus) would be used by future generations of scientists, including Albert Einstein, to be able to make mathematical assertions.
The evolution of the history of mathematics in explaining the physical world has been shifting from explanation of the existing physical world, to advancing predictive theories that will be affirmed by future experimentation.
In the world of science today, mathematical theory precedes the affirmation of the theory in the real world, in some cases by decades.
As we look back in history, we see the Greek mathematical theories in geometry could be instantly used to explain past observations. By the time we get to Newton, we still see an explanation of past events (Kepler’s detailed observations of planetary motion to support the Newtonian theory of gravity), but his new mathematical techniques and Laws of Motion would be essential for the development of the new technologies of a machine age. In the Einsteinian equations, we see far more assertions for the first time entirely preceding experimentation or observation. The observations and experiments that supported an Einsteinian Universe continued for at least the next 60 years.
Now we move forward to String Theory. The mathematics makes sense to very advanced mathematicians, but the assertions are not testable. There are no computers powerful enough to analyze the equations, and there will not be computers powerful enough to perform these calculations until sometime in the 2020's! When you consider that String Theory began its mathematical evolution back in the early 1970's, and none of it can be modeled or tested for at least 50 years after the first math was evolved, is a very profound change in scientific method and direction.
So this change shows how physics has changed from an experimental science, where math was developed to explain events that had already been observed, to this new world where math is developed that has to wait years for affirmation by experimentation by physicists.
In other words, the direction of physics is now being directed by the mathematical models that require testing, and in some cases, the initial testing cannot happen for 20 years. This is directing the major course of technological development. For example, String Theory is a powerful motivation for the development of wildly powerful computers, because the field cannot even begin to be properly explored without this capability.
The current mathematicians who are researching String Theory are driven by belief. They have absolutely no reason to believe based on observations in the physical world. Their beliefs are compelled by the completeness of the math, and the way it all holds together in a purely rational intellectual analysis.
Now compare this to tribal beliefs, which are passed down through generations as part of the social glue that binds tribal structures. In every society that we have historical records on, these have used beliefs in higher beings as the foundation for social interactions. The ethics dictated by these beliefs were taught to babies from the cradle onwards, indoctrinating them in the ways of the society in which they were raised.
These beliefs have no rational foundation. They are conditioned beliefs, which are not subject to the scientific method. For example, in the Middle Ages, when the Pope claimed to be infallible, and also stated that the earth was flat, and that the earth was the center of the universe, then in Christian societies these were unquestionable axioms.
Today, we look back and laugh at these assertions. The Roman Catholic Church, rather red-faced at their history, quietly acknowledges some of it errors.
Meanwhile, in the US, we have seen the rise of Fundamentalism, which does not acknowledge the role of scientific investigation. Common Beliefs, such as the earth is only 6,000 years old, cannot be shaken by the huge body of evidence that rejects that assertion, because those people who believe that the earth is only 6,000 years old have no training in geology, geography, or any of the related sciences required to analyze the available scientific data rationally.
Rational belief is based on asserted theories, and real world observational affirmation. Irrational belief ("Belief") is based on untested tribal assertions, and is not open to questioning or change.
At last, I introduce Darwin. On his voyage on the Beagle, Darwin came up with a wild-assed theory to explain the things he observed along the way. His early evidence was detailed, but it was supported by a small data set, the results of his five years on the Beagle. Remember, it is a Theory, not a Law. What's the difference? A Law, like Newton's Laws of Motion, can be tested, and ALWAYS give the same result. A theory, like The Theory of Evolution, is a framework in which to understand the progress of life on earth, and like any theory, as more and more data is gathered, it describes the world we live in, and it's past, more and more accurately.
Since Darwin's first publication, his theory has been affirmed by huge amounts of data. There are anomalies, because it is a new science, and our knowledge of the ancient geological world is very incomplete. For example, at first glance, it may seem that we know a lot about the age of dinosaurs, over 50 million years ago. But the reality is, we are discovering new fossils, new species, new connections, every year! And these are HUGE critters that weighed tons. How about a birdlike fossil, discovered in Utah, in the US since 2000, which weighed over a ton? How could they have not found that earlier? (I chuckle at this discovery. God leaving clues in Mormon country? How ironic.) http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2002/05/020508072510.htm
OK, so why is there this huge US Fundamentalist denial of the Theory of Evolution?
The answer is pretty simple. If we accept the Theory of Evolution, it raises questions about Divine Intervention.
Fundamentalists go to Church and pray, because they believe that God answers their prayers. Their Universe is run by an interventionist God. Every act that happens in the Universe happens by the will of God. Not a single leaf falls that God does not dictate.
The problem with the Theory of Evolution is that it does not require an interventionist God. For Believers, this is also a problem with modern astrophysics. As the Hubble looks out into the stars, it is looking at light that began its journey as long as 14 billion years ago. As yet, astronomy has not found a single shred of proof of an interventionist God. Nothing peculiar has been observed that requires a Supreme Being who could move stars and galaxies around at will. Fundamentalist churches are very quiet on this point, and live in the nether world of possibility. Science has neither confirmed or denied the presence of an interventionist Supreme Being. So the Fundamentalists can continue to claim an interventionist God, because this tenet of their Belief is not directly contradicted by science. So while the presence of an interventionist God becomes increasingly unlikely, as more astronomical observations are made, it leaves a little wiggle room. Religious Beliefs tend to flourish in these areas of uncertainty.
This is why there is such a flurry of activity when scientific findings contradict Fundamentalist Beliefs, such as in the case of the Theory of Evolution. For those who choose to Believe in the biblical Creation story, which includes the Adam and Eve scenario, is denied by Darwinian ideas. Further, it also denies the need for an interventionist God.
What happens to the Fundamentalist Church if Believers question the power of prayer? It is likely the Church will collapse. It doesn't just threaten Christianity. Islamic ritual prayer (Salaat) has a very fixed format and is practiced 5 times a day. How do you think the concept that there is nobody listening would fly amongst Fundamentalist Muslims?
So as science corrals the Believers more and more tightly, they become frenzied fish as their pond shrinks. Beliefs flourish in areas of uncertainty, and the smaller the pond becomes, the more hysterical the attempts at denial.
Intelligent Design is the most recent assault on Darwinism. The reason Fundamentalists cling to Intelligent Design is because it implies that God has played, and continues to play, a day-to-day role in the continuing evolution of the Universe and all the creatures within it. This implies that, if God is actually around on a day to day basis, there is the wiggle room that he is actually listening to their prayers!
Again, we are looking at wiggle room. If the laws of physics were all pre-determined from the moment of the Big Bang, and they are simply taking place as time passes, then the result could be the same as having an interventionist God running the show!
But an interventionist God who determines the destiny of every leaf that falls is even more attractive, because if he is that all powerful, he could have created the geological history of the earth, and the cosmological history of the Universe, as a huge joke on mankind and its scientists! This conveniently explains away every scientific observation that conflicts with the Believer's Beliefs.
Here we have the kind of thinking that marks the Believer. The principle of Occam's Razor, "Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily", implies that the simplest solution that explains the observations is most likely to be the truth. In Sherlock Holmes’ eyes, " ... when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth". Further affirmation of the observation that, as their pond shrinks, Fundamentalists become more frenzied in their denial.
This kind of hysterical denial is in line with medieval Christianity, where scientific investigation was heretical, and contradicting the Pope carried a death sentence. Hey, death penalties are a very effective way to channel Beliefs.
However, Belief-driven societies tend to lag behind societies that embrace science.
The European societies which dumped the Pope as their spiritual leader earliest (England, then Germany) became centers of scientific investigation, and the rest is history. While Papist societies floundered in poverty and Feudalism, societies that embraced the scientific method moved forward, creating wealth, and the Industrial Revolution, which raised the living standard of all citizens.
We may see a parallel in the modern world. If the Fundamentalists Muslim world countries did not have oil, they would remain amongst the poorest in the world. In America, where around 50% of the people express Fundamentalist beliefs, and a diminishing interest in science, we may be seeing a shift of technological expertise to more atheistic countries. Unhobbled by their need to fit everything into a denialist world view to fit their Fundamentalist needs for an interventionist God, these other countries are becoming the fast learners, the economic growth centers.
Here is an article that has very interesting information about belief and atheism around the world. http://www.atheism.ru/library/phil_1.phtml
For myself, I don't deny that there may be a Supreme Being. However, the huge amount of irrational baggage that comes along with religious organizations prevents me from ascribing to any particular sect.
So, for the time being, I define myself as an agnostic, simply someone who does not know.