Friday, May 29, 2009

The belief trap, and how to get out of it

I was at a conference recently, and one of the keynote speakers was Thomas Ray, a zooligist who made his mark in the 90's with a surprising computer model of evolution called Tierra. However, his talk had nothing to do with that project, but rather introduced us to his new line of research: studying the subjective experiences reported when different neuro-receptor systems in the brain are stimulated.

He described the results for 30 receptors. One really suprised me. He said something to the effect of, "67% of the experimental subjects reported that the experiment was among the most significant religious experiences in their lives", and "30% reported the experiment as the MOST significant religious experience in their lives". Shocking, since the experiment really had nothing to do with religion at all.

It is remarkable how a particular molecule can cause a person to believe that there is an omnipotent being out there looking over us. Kinda makes you question your own beliefs. If a molecule can do that, then any of my dearly-held "certainties" might actually be the effect of some chemicals in my brain.

As a skeptic, this is indeed the conclusion that I must draw.

However, that's not to say that we can never gain traction on reality. Ever since birth, you've been building your own internal model of the world, and it's probably served you very well so far. For example, you avoid throwing yourself head-first down flights of stairs because you can predict that the outcome be unpleasant. Maintaining such a mental model is in your best interest for survival (all those who failed that test are no longer with us). But what can be said about those questions for which common experience offers less visceral feedback? Things like, "Does my lucky hat help to guide my team to victory?", and "Does sticking needles in my body align my chakras?"

Here's where science parts company with everyone else. What is the one thing that we all have in common?


That is to say, we all live in the same universe (well, except for this guy). And we can all agree on observations of things that occur in this physical universe. For example, when we look at a thermometer, we can agree on the temperature. This suggests that there should be a corpus of phenomena that we all agree on, and that body of knowledge must be based on objective observation.

There is such a body of knowledge, and it's called science. And I would argue that science is the ONLY such collection. In other words, if there is a claim that cannot be observed or repeated, then it's outside of science, and outside the body of agreed-upon knowledge. Conversely, if something can be demonstrated repeatedly, then it's welcomed into the annals of science with open arms. This global consensus is the reason that science holds such a prominent position in society. Let's face it; anybody can come up with whacked-out claims of flying spaghetti monsters or people being raised from the dead. Demonstrating those claims to everyone else, however, is the challenge, and the wall that separates superstition from reality.

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