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Nicholas Warner

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The Journey to Unbelief

Posted: 02/23/2012 11:46 am

"No one knows enough to be an atheist." Thus Deepak Chopra, best-selling author and "alternative medicine" guru, recently trivialized one of the deepest issues in human knowledge: How is it that we come to unbelief? This issue is more universal than religion and goes to the heart of everything we are and what we have achieved as a culture. Why do we believe in an expanding universe that is 13.7 billion years old? Why do we not believe in faeries, astrologers and the virtues of snake oil? Why do we believe in evolution? Why do we not believe that President Obama was born in Kenya? How do we assess the dangers of global warming?

Science is not about absolute immutable truth but is all about building levels of confidence in ideas and expressing them in terms of theories or laws. Quite literally, science asks and answers what you can bet on a theory. A few dollars? Human lives? Every day, we bet thousands of lives on the laws of aerodynamics and we have bet the existence of our society on the theory of electromagnetism. How did we come to have such towering confidence in a theory that was developed purely from human curiosity and is only slightly older than the theory of evolution?

Establishing scientific confidence rests on two foundations. The first is to use theories to predict outcomes and test them by experiment. Every test puts the theory on the line and a wrong prediction falsifies the theory. But every time the theory survives a test, confidence grows. The second foundation came from the Franciscan order of monks and their belief in the importance of simplicity in all things. Ockham's razor is the ultimate arbiter between theories that describe the same natural phenomena: always choose the simpler theory.

Theories of faeries can be beautiful, appealing and even poetic but they rarely give useful predictions and become very convoluted if they are to avoid falsification by simple experiments. Ockham's razor removes bad theories just as most of us discard extreme conspiracy theories: not because we can prove them wrong but because there are simpler, more powerful explanations that fit the data and provide better predictions. Most conspiracy theories are simply too improbable. So we tend to believe that President Obama was born in Hawaii, astronauts went to the Moon and our daily lives are not ruled by the positions of planets. Science cannot prove these things with absolute certainty but the discipline of science advises us what can rely upon and with what level of certainty. Thus we have used science to rise above the quagmire of superstition and build a complex and vibrant society, confident in our origins in a Big Bang and the evolutionary processes that brought us to this point.

As a humanist, I value the remarkable achievements of science and what we have come to understand about the universe and I equally treasure the human experience of that universe. To understand one but not experience the other would be tragic: every life is a very short, rare and precious moment in the universe and should be lived fully and completely with all the chaotic, wonderful aspects of being human. For many, the human experience of the universe involves a relationship with a personal God. As an atheist I disagree with their idea but cannot prove them wrong. I view their belief as an extremely improbable hypothesis with no predictive power but, in disagreement, I honor the journey that has led them to their belief. Just as the knowledge that my love for my wife involves oxytocin can never diminish the experience of our lives and the shared joy of that love.

Atheists and people of faith have many things in common. One of them is to recognize the importance of the question of belief. Dr. Chopra's pablum: "No one knows enough to... " is fundamentally dishonest. It frames the issue in a way that diminishes the thought and effort of all who have wrestled with belief or unbelief and, even worse, gives the false reassurance that we can safely ignore the issue because no one can answer the question with certainty. Surely I do not have to remind Dr. Chopra that the journey is frequently more important than the destination.