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On the weight of the evidence

10 December 2012, 15:00

In my previous article, I discussed in brief the various methods a person may use to observe and experience the world and the people around them. To briefly recap the main thrust of that article: we use our senses to gather information about the world. Our brains take these sensory information, how we feel about it, what we think about it, and jumps from there to a conclusion about it. Different people process all this different inputs in different ways. Rationalists give their thought process more weight, while spiritualists tend to emphasise the intuitive response more. Both “types” think about it. Both have intuitive responses. Both may experience the same sensory inputs, but will jump to different conclusions about it. They’ll accept different sensory inputs as valid.

Scientists do this all the time. Two scientists may look at the same body of evidence, and reach different conclusions about it. In science, there’s often competing theories, with evidence for both, and which you accept is largely going to depend on which one you feel is correct. The dominant or generally accepted theory is usually the one that most scientists in that field feels is correct. This is usually the one with the most evidence, even if not all the data necessarily fit that particular theory. Most of the data, yes, but not necessarily all of the data. That is why scientific theories usually have confidence limits, and why they are expressed in terms of probabilities.

The interesting part for me is how often it’s one, or a very small group of scientists who look at something in a different way, come to a contrary conclusion, and then face a lot of opposition from other scientists, usually supporters of the general theory at the time. In the mid 1800’s, for example, physicists believed that they had explained the fundamentals of how everything worked. They had Maxwell’s four equations that explained electromagnetism as waves, they had Newton’s laws of motion and a number of others, and that, to them, explained everything. Then along came Henrich Hertz and blew it right out of the water with his discovery of the photovoltaic effect. Here was a phenomenon that couldn’t be explained. Immediately, the science of physics was virtually reborn, just as it had been during the Newtonian age. From Copernican, to Newtonian, to Einsteinian, to Quantum. Each a shift in paradigm; each one scientists going “Hey, guys, I know this sounds crazy, but...”

This is of course a function of the human mind. When we discover something we feel is right, we tend to hold on to it. Other ideas tend to become a threat. That’s why science and scientific conferences occasionally turn into verbal battlegrounds. Climate change is the current major battleground, with some scientists discovering evidence for human involvement in climate change, and others denying it, while some attribute the observations to natural cycles. Some of this research is backed by political ideology, economic ideology and even religious ideology, with science the weapon of choice. I invite anyone to make sense of this mess. For every single claim, there’s an accepted body of evidence. All of them have peer reviewed articles to back them up. Ultimately which particular set of evidence you accept is going to depend on which you feel is most authoritative. To do that, you need more than just your rational thoughts.

The same can be said for the more spiritually inclined among us. A lot of religious folk do follow their faith blindly, but not all. There’s a number of people who looked at their religion, and couldn’t make any kind of sense out of it. Hence you have Christians becoming Buddhists or Muslims or whatever the case may be. These people are in their own way as strong as scientists. It takes just as much courage to look at your world view, your own paradigm of existence, examine it, and abandon it in favour of something that makes more sense. Atheists are generally of the opinion that the move from faith in god to viewing the world in terms of probabilities take more courage than moving from one faith to another. I would personally dispute that. It still depends on which aspect of your mental processes you emphasis. If you’re more rationally inclined to begin with, it takes no more courage than any other shift in paradigm. For the more intuitive, it’s just as big a jump. It all comes down to what makes sense to you. What body of evidence do you accept?

For the spiritual person who questions his/her faith, it takes just as much thought, just as much information gathering, just as much a search for evidence as it takes for someone to move from faith to probability. As it takes for a scientist to test a theory. It’s the same mental process, just a different body of evidence.

Say you have a spiritual experience. Will you accept that as valid or not? It depends on your mental process. You could dismiss it as merely a momentary misfire of the brain, or a lack/overdose of chemicals. Or momentary madness. The rationalist will do this, and dismiss the same experience in everyone else as merely a malfunction. The more intuitive, those who look more inside of themselves, will take that experience and accept it as valid evidence. The same experience. Different interpretation. Rationalists will of course argue that the experience is the result of a chemical release, for example. But of course you could just as easily argue that the chemical release was the result of the experience. Do you experience love because of the dopamine in your brain, or do you have dopamine released because you recognise something you like in the other person? At the end of the day, you have to take the experience and either act on it or dismiss it. If you can accept love as a valid response, why not a spiritual experience? The love you feel is particular to you, just as the spiritual experience is particular to you. It’s not going to be valid for anyone else.

Those who argue that rational-dominant thought processes are superior because it doesn’t lead to obsessions and violence are not entirely correct either. There have been instances of scientists killing each other, or getting into fist fights over disagreements over evidence. An argument that these are isolated incidents also don’t hold water. It’s largely a matter of scale. If there were more rational-dominant people around, the fights would get bigger. If the rational-dominant folks reached a large enough number, there would be wars just as there would be between spiritually inclined people. It’s not the adherence to the rational or the intuitive that causes violent outbursts. It’s our ape-brains wired to respond to the perception of threats, and you’re susceptible to that no matter which part of your mind is dominant. Whether you act on it or not is a matter of self-control. More passionate personalities with fight, while the phlegmatic among us will take a step back and exercise better control over themselves.

You find these phlegmatic folks on both sides of the fence. Not all Muslims start frothing at the mouth when Mohammed is immortalised in cartoons. Not all Christians feel the need to preach, or impose their faith on others. Not all scientists are boring, pedantic martinets.

So what am I saying here? There is probably no reconciling the two schools of though. Both, however, are equally valid when applied to the individual person. If you have a spiritual experience, and you interpret that as the presence of god, then so be it. God is real for you, and if you want to express that through accepting his word, then also good. Go slaughter a few goats or whatever it is you do. Don’t, however, try to apply that personal experience to anyone other than yourself. Don’t impose it on your children, or try to convert your friends. I’m willing to go so far as to allow any given religious friend to make their case to me once, and once only. If they don’t manage to convince me, I consider the case closed, and won’t be willing to hear anything more on the subject until such time as you bring me NEW evidence/experiences to consider.

I do consider personal experience as valid because if I didn’t, I’d have to convert to a solipsist view of the universe, and deny all experiences. Or at least consider all of them as being potentially invalid. Personally, that’s just not something I can intuitively accept, so I accept my personal experiences as valid for me. As such, I do believe in something spiritual. But that belief is in a constant state of evolution as I learn more, both about science, and about the spiritual. I have not yet reached the point where I can say I know enough to draw a definite conclusion...and perhaps I never will. That is fine though. As Wolf often tells me, it is the journey that’s important, and not the destination.

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