Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think. But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing.
~ Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, 1791 ~

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Searching for truth: Part 1

As I look back over the last few years, and as I think about the many discussions I've had with believers, there are some key fundamental differences that keep resurfacing over and over again. I'll expand on this in more detail in this article, but in short I'm referring to how people go about searching for truth.

My main focus for this series of articles will be to explain my own framework for building a consistent worldview. Why don't I believe in a god? Why don't I believe that the Bible is divinely inspired? Why do I accept scientific claims such as evolution, physics, and germ theory? Is there anything I believe in, for which the evidence is not conclusive? I hope to answer all of these questions and more in this series.

I've wanted to write an article like this for a long time, because I often run into issues of this nature when in discussions with believers. Perhaps I should have written this article first, so that I could refer to it in later discussions. Well, better late than never I guess.

The null hypothesis

It's difficult to know where to start, because there are several parts that all relate to each other. Perhaps the simplest place to start is to look at the null hypothesis, and what it means for belief.

In science, the null hypothesis is kind of like the default position. If we're looking for a relationship between two phenomena for example, the null hypothesis would simply be that there is no relationship between the phenomena. The goal of the research would be to falsify the null hypothesis. In the example I just mentioned, discovering a causal relationship between two phenomena would be sufficient to falsify the null hypothesis. If we cannot demonstrate a relationship between them, then the null hypothesis must remain.

To cut straight to the point, I approach other kinds of beliefs about reality in a similar way. When it comes to the existence of gods or goddesses, the null hypothesis would be something along the lines of:
Gods and/or goddesses have not been demonstrated to exist
In order to falsify this hypothesis, we need to demonstrate that one or more gods or goddesses do in fact exist.


If you're already wondering how I define certain terms I have used so far, then let me just say I'm impressed. Definitions always seem a bit tedious, but they are important. In a way, definitions free up our brain to focus on what is actually meant.

Google gives the definition of existence as "the fact or state of living or having objective reality". This is what I mean by existence. For example, trees exist. Superman (most probably) doesn't exist. I'm not interested in discussing all of the corner cases and boundaries. They are well beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say that I'm only interested in existence to the extent that it is relevant to me, and to the extent that I exist.

Everyone seems to define faith differently, but for the purpose of this article I define faith as "belief for which the evidence is not sufficient/conclusive". If it were conclusive, I would call it "knowledge". In my opinion, knowledge is always superior to faith. I see no virtue at all in preferring the latter over the former.

That which can be demonstrated to be true, whether via evidence or logic (or both). There is one notable exception, in the form of introspective knowledge about oneself. I'm open to that kind of knowledge perhaps being closer to faith rather than "real" knowledge, given the inherently subjective nature of it (and I recognise there are some recursion issues with that as well), but in any case I think it's beyond the scope of this article.

Burden of proof

Often when debating the existence of God, many believers demand that their opponent disprove the existence of God, the underlying assumption being that if their opponent fails to do so, this counts as vindication of God's existence, or at least the reasonableness of such a belief.

But this represents a failure to understand the burden of proof. In short, the burden of proof always falls on the person making the positive claim. That is, in a debate over whether or not disease is caused by germs, the burden of proof is on the person who claims the affirmative, i.e. that disease is in fact caused by germs. Of course, this burden of proof has been sufficiently met by a large body of scientific research and evidence.

To demonstrate why the burden of proof must always rest on the person making the positive claim, consider the alternative. Suppose someone claimed there was a teapot floating in space between Earth and Mars (perhaps you've heard of Russell's Teapot analogy). If we say the burden of proof was on the person making the negative claim, then we'd all be obliged to believe in this celestial teapot until such time as someone was able to map the entire realm of space between Earth and Mars - perhaps an impossible feat by human standards! To go further still, suppose this person claimed that the teapot was invisible, or worse still, immaterial. Is it reasonable to conclude that the teapot must exist, on the grounds that no one has disproven it? Of course not!

That is why the burden of proof always rests on the positive claim.


Evidence is key to forming beliefs. Without evidence, all we would have is opinions and assertions. Evidence is basically information or facts that support, confirm or disconfirm a hypothesis. Let's look at a simple example. Consider the claim that a particular blade of grass is green. Examples of evidence would be the blade of grass itself, and perhaps if we wanted to be thorough, a measure of the wavelength(s) of light reflected off the grass. This evidence would be sufficient to confirm or disconfirm the claim being made.

If the evidence for a claim is conclusive (beyond reasonable doubt), then we would say the claim is true.

If the evidence for a claim is not conclusive, we basically have two options:
  1. Believe the claim is true anyway (despite the possibility for error), or 
  2. Withhold belief until conclusive evidence is provided. 

This last part is so important that I could probably classify the majority of believers as adopting the first option, and the majority of atheists as adopting the second.

If you believe a claim is true when the evidence is not conclusive, you should openly state that, and accept the inherent risk and uncertainty of that belief. The problem with this option arises when people make further leaps based on this belief, or act as if their belief has already been confirmed as true. Such is the case with almost every religion. Option 1 seems to be what most believers refer to as "faith".

In most cases I would adopt option 2. This is why I remain unconvinced by arguments based on gaps in scientific understanding, or based on scientific uncertainty. It seems to me that the most rational approach is always to wait until we do understand a particular phenomena, or to wait until sufficient evidence arises one way or the other. Otherwise, we would simply be fooling ourselves.

By making guesses at the right answer, we could end up being right, but it's far more likely we would be wrong. History is full of cases where existing ideas have been proven wrong by science. It's true that there are also a few cases where someone's guess was later confirmed by science, but I'd consider those cases extremely lucky. Given 1000 random guesses, when one of them turns out to be right, people seem willing to believe that the lucky guesser must have had some expert (or even divinely given) knowledge, while instantly forgetting the 999 who were wrong. Such is the power of confirmation bias.

The bottom line is that relying on lucky guesses does not seem to me to be a reliable method for finding truth. The huge number of people that do not win the lottery every week count as sufficient reason to reject such a method.

Also, when you consider that such lucky guesses were only known to be true at the point when science confirmed them, the victory still goes to the science - and the lucky guess is entirely redundant.

The scientific method is the most reliable method ever devised for discovering truth about reality.


Probably the most important part of any claim about reality is whether it is falsifiable. If a claim is not testable or falsifiable it becomes effectively useless to us. I tend to discard unfalsifiable claims as irrelevant. The evidence we should expect to see in the world looks exactly the same if the claim is true as it would if the claim is not true. In other words, the claim cannot be confirmed as true.

To demonstrate the problem of unfalsifiability more clearly, let me give you a modern example. Consider a hypothesis which states that individual atoms have consciousness as a fundamental property. Now consider a second hypothesis which states that consciousness is entirely separate from the physical/natural realm.

Neither of these hypotheses is testable or falsifiable. We have no way to know whether they are true or false. But they cannot both be true. Either one of them is false, or they both are. How do we go about discovering which (if either) is true? It's no use going for the "believe anyway despite a lack of evidence" option that we described above, because we don't know which of them to believe, and it would be incoherent to believe that both are somehow true.

The point I want to drive home is that there are two major problems with unfalsifiable claims:
  1. There is no way to confirm or disconfirm them. They offer no truth value whatsoever. 
  2. There is no way to decide between competing/contradictory unfalsifiable claims, with regard to truth. 

The last point I want to make about falsifiability is that it links back to the discussion on burden of proof. This is another reason why failure to disprove a claim is never a sufficient reason to believe in it. If the claimant cannot demonstrate that their claim is true, there is no reason to believe it. It really is that simple.

A higher standard

The point of all of this is to rule out bias and mistakes in our thinking when assessing the truth of claims about reality.

Some believers claim that I'm setting my standards too high. To those people I would like to offer the following response:
I would like to apologise to your omniscient, omnipotent deity for coming up with standards he/she/it was unable to meet. In my defense, it seemed only reasonable to adopt such standards, given the awesome track record of the natural sciences which have been meeting these same standards for hundreds of years now. There's some irony in a perfect deity not being up to the task, but honestly he/she/it should have seen it coming.

Click here to read part 2