Keys and Balances

Which of the following two statements is best?

I will contemplate whether (proposition) is true.

I will contemplate (proposition)‘s truth.

The first one is like a locked door, and the evidences for the proposition are the teeth of a key. If the proposition is true, you should be able to unlock the door with ease–the teeth will match up with the lock. If it’s not true, then your key should jam as if one or some of its teeth were the wrong size. The evidence doesn’t match up. Modifying your key by removing the faulty teeth may work, or it may not. It may be that the combination of teeth on your key simply cannot work with this lock. It may be that this lock is artificial, and can’t open no matter which key you use.

The second one, on the other hand, is like a balance scale. One of the scale’s sides represents evidences in favor of the proposition, and the other represents evidences against. If there is evidence for the proposition, you can put a weight on the pro side. If there is evidence against it, you put it on the con side. Finally, if the pros outweigh the cons, then the proposition must be true. If not, then it’s false.

This second scenario requires something extraordinary– it requires a weight-putter. In other words, the proposition’s truth depends on whether or not the person weighing the evidence can do a good job. Miss a piece of valid evidence, and the scale might weigh toward the wrong side. Add a piece of invalid evidence, and the same thing might happen.

The proposition’s truth in the first scenario, on the other hand, depends entirely on the lock, something you cannot tamper with. The impetus is on you to discover which key works with it, or if no key works with it. Sure, you can brute force your way through the locks, but even if you’re right about it, no one will take you seriously. You gotta show it’s true, buddy. Show everyone else how to open that door.

Now apply these stupid little metaphors to science and to religion. (You knew it was coming.)

Now, granted, in the real world, both science and religion utilize both of these methods to a degree. The difference, however, is that science seems to aspire to the first method, whereas religion seems to aspire to the second. How many times have you heard a believer say something like, “I don’t see how (some scientific proposition) can be true. Therefore…”? No, they don’t even try to figure out why science views the proposition as valid. Certainly they’ll sometimes give the appearance. But it almost always turns out to be a rhetorical ploy on their part. They’ll say, “If evolution is true, then…” and invent some false logical consequence that has nothing remotely to do with the idea in question.

And if all else fails, they’ll say, “All your scientific reasonings are clever and well thought-out, but…”, and continue with some subjective, emotional appeal. It’s very rare that you’ll hear a religious person say, “I don’t know,” when faced with the dilemmas teleological reasoning inevitably inspires. Because to admit that is to admit that their holy texts and their theology are extremely lacking. Scientists at least know that science is extremely lacking; they acknowledge and accept the dilemmas that mechanistic thinking inspires (“How did the universe come to be?”, for instance). The truth of the matter is that religious authorities don’t know much more than lay people. Because there isn’t anything else to know. That’s why the stuff is called dogma.

That second scenario is also the one atheist-to-theist converts seem to almost always use. Consider this quote by the philosopher Antony Flew, a recent convert from atheism to deism:

“… I believe that the origin of life and reproduction simply cannot be explained from a biological standpoint despite numerous efforts to do so. With every passing year, the more that was discovered about the richness and inherent intelligence of life, the less it seemed likely that a chemical soup could magically generate the genetic code. The difference between life and non-life, it became apparent to me, was ontological and not chemical. The best confirmation of this radical gulf is Richard Dawkins’ comical effort to argue in The God Delusion that the origin of life can be attributed to a “lucky chance.” If that’s the best argument you have, then the game is over.”

Do you see how much he uses the scale method? It’s as if “every passing year” adds more weights to the con side of the mechanistic origins of life scale. It’s just so apparent to him that it can’t be true. The arguments just don’t impress him enough. Ask an actual biologist, though, and you’ll most assuredly get an “I don’t know, but it could be something like this” answer. That’s even what Dawkins was getting at, despite Flew’s rhetorical jibber-jabber.

So yeah.. that’s all I have to say. I know, it’s difficult using metaphors well since there are always stupid little loopholes if you take them too seriously. If you find one in my metaphor, feel free to point it out.


2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by troy on November 3, 2007 at 10:52 pm

    For me the first statement is more ‘math’ based, and as you say the response is either one thing or another. The second statement is opening the proposition up to the ambiguous definition of ‘truth’ …which is where everyone and their uncle have their say on the matter.

    Sometimes I wish language was more like math.


  2. I have utmost respect for people who use the three powerful words; “I don’t know”.

    To me it is the mark of intelligence to understand and admit what you DON’T know, rather than mapping-out what you do know. The latter leads to hasty jumping-to-conclusions and looking for the “common sense” reason so that you can put another tick nexto something that you know. Personally I’d love to say “I know how to resolve the discrepencies in the General Theory of Relativity when compared to Quantum Physics … goddidit”. But that’s cheating, not learning.

    Somehow when a scientist rightly says “I don’t know but I do think that …” the religious antagonist would shout “Aha! You see?! Professor so-and-so doesn’t know and he’s an expert.”

    One of the things I have long wanted to do is propose an experiment to the fense-sitting theists; I’d explain the power of the three words (not “god did it”, the other three words; “i don’t know”) and then ask them to pose a question to a church leader (pastor / minister / father / whoever) which cannot have an answer other than “I don’t know”. For example; ask “What does the bible teach us about Aids?” or “What is god’s word on computers?” which are not written about in the bible at all. Perhaps pre-empt the defacto “I have spoken to god about this myself” by asking for evidence which is outside of that person’s head. To me, any answer other than “I don’t know” is not a valid answer, but a church elder will not say those words. After all, religion has known the answers all along.


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