Sunday, December 7, 2008

Preferring the hard truth

When Kepler found his long-cherished belief did not agree with the most precise observation, he accepted the uncomfortable fact. He preferred the hard truth to his dearest illusions; that is the heart of science.
– Carl Sagan, Cosmos

Today's Sagan quote is one of my favorites. One of the things I've been learning to let go of in the past couple years is the illusion that an idea is correct simply because I am the person who believes it. I remember back in Mr. Ferguson's journalism class in high school, when a student was vigorously questioning something he was teaching. I was shocked when Mr. Ferguson said something like, "The difference between my position and yours is that I am willing to admit I might be wrong." Wow! From a teacher! I think I learned more in that moment than in most of the rest of my high school career. Although I learned this lesson a long time ago, I kind of let myself forget it once I joined the Mormon church. After all, when you have the fullness of the restored gospel, the chance of being wrong is very low. Isn't it?

the-holy-bibleA few weeks ago, I came across an article that blew my mind. I found it on the de-conversion blog, and it's called The Psychology of Apologetics: Biblical Inerrancy. I was once a fundamentalist Christian, and so I know what it's like to believe that the Bible is inerrant. The mind-blowing idea from the article is illustrated in the following paragraph.

What does this have to do with apologetics? This model of belief-formation bears directly on how we resolve potential contradictions between evidence and belief, and between one set of evidence and another. If we are willing to sacrifice some simplicity, parsimony, and the like, we can always maintain a consistent web of belief while simultaneously holding on to any particular belief we wish. Creationists do this all the time. So do conspiracy theorists, end-times theorists, and radical ideologues of every stripe. These folks all have a strong commitment to a handful of central claims, and they are able to retro-fit the rest of the data in around them. They say they can answer every objection – and they can.

When I read this, I realized that this was something I had been doing for a long time. I believed that Joseph Smith was a prophet, and the LDS church was the true church of Jesus Christ. Whenever I encountered anything that seemed to undermine these beliefs, it could be explained away by creating a more contrived understanding of some other aspect of reality. And in fact, you can do this with just about any belief, which is why evidence is not always sufficient to convince someone that their beliefs are in error. Evidence can be explained away.

book-of-abraham-papyrusThe Book of Abraham isn't anywhere close to an accurate translation of the Egyptian papyri Joseph Smith claimed to be translating? Well then, it must be a "spiritual translation", or we must have the wrong papyri (despite the evidence), or maybe the word "translate" means something else entirely. Joseph Smith married 33 women behind Emma's back, many of them teenagers or already married to other men? Well then, God must have commanded him to do so for mysterious reasons, or they must have been married to him only posthumously (despite the evidence), or maybe he was only acting as a man (prophets are only infallible when acting as such, after all). And so on. It doesn't matter how implausible and convoluted these explanations become; it's possible that everything happened exactly this way, and the cherished belief remains intact.

These days, I try to avoid having any cherished beliefs. I have been mistaken so many times in my life that I know I am always capable of being mistaken again. I try to approach knowledge from the standpoint of a skeptic who simply wants to know what is true, and how we know it is true. That is probably an unattainable goal, but I think it's worth striving for every day.

johannes-keplerFor example, I currently believe the existence of a god or gods is extremely unlikely. I come to this belief based on the lack of evidence for said gods, and my own life experience. But I do not hold this belief as sacred. I could be wrong. For that reason, I'm currently reading a few pro-theist books such as The Reason For God by Timothy Keller. So far I don't find his arguments convincing, but I love that it makes me think.

I would also love to believe that we can be reunited with our loved ones after death. I can see why this idea is so enticing to so many people. I would love for it to be true. I don't see any reason to believe it, except for my own desire for it to be true, which is all the more reason to be skeptical. Again, I would be extremely happy to be wrong. But as Sagan described Kepler, I prefer the hard truth to my dearest illusions.