10/15/2018

Knowing and Believing

One of the often fatal flaws in human behavior is deciphering the difference between “knowing” and “believing.” The less you know, the more likely it is that you won’t know what you don’t know and that you will believe things that are not knowable. Got that?

It’s often the same with “need” and “want.” You want a cell phone, but you don’t need one. People survived for a few 100,000 years without them. You don’t need a car, you could live closer to work or take a bus or train. You choose to live where you feel you are forced to drive rather than walk, bike, or take mass transit. You choose to do work that makes you feel the need to drive. You need food, water, and, depending on where you live, shelter and clothing. You don’t need clothing if you live someplace warm, like humans did (and do) in Africa for most of our species’ evolution. There are thousands of things people in western societies imagine they need that are merely wants: entertainment, luxury, territory and wars over territory, philosophy, money and economics, education, and so on. But try living without food and water for a very short time and you’ll discover the meaning of “need” and shortly afterwards you won’t exist at all.

6791492_f1024The same goes for knowing verses believing. People often say they know there is a god and an afterlife or magic and spirits and ghosts or alien invaders from Alpha Centari who stick probes up human asses for inscrutable reasons. All bullshit. None of those things can be proven in any way. Even some of the things we know are hard to prove, but most of the things we believe are just made-up fairy tales of varying qualities and quantities of idiocy.

difference-between-knowledge-and-belief-7-728Gravity, for example, is consistently demonstrable. However, physicists have only uncovered some parts of a complete theory of gravity, regardless of how well we know it works. We know two bodies are attracted to each other in some proportion to their mass. We know there are some qualities of mass and gravity that current physics does not fully explain. Scientists act as if they believe in the current definition of gravity because it mostly provides accurate information; except in extreme astrophysics and sub-atomic examples. When a better explanation comes along, scientific belief will change to reflect that information. That is how theories work.

Biologists know that the theory of evolution is a fact. Examples of evolution in a single human lifetime have been demonstrated in viruses, bacteria, and even small animals under extreme environmental stress. There is no theory of “intelligent design,” only wild speculation based on superstition and desperation. A theory is “a well-confirmed type of explanation of nature, made in a way consistent with scientific method, and fulfilling the criteria required by modern science.” Religion meets none of that criteria in any way. Interjecting a magical “designer” into an explanation of biology or physics only throws off every inquiry based on that assumption so that all conclusions derived from that concept are demonstrably flawed. 

We may desperately want there to be a god who cares about us, individually, and it is possible that some people actually need to sustain that belief to cling to what passes for their grip on mental health. That, of course, is a perversion of “need” in the real, physical world and it may turn out to be one of the many reasons humans are not a sustainable species. Replacing the kind of insanity that comes from spiritual insecurity with the delusion of religion does not get to the core of the insanity.

a few godsThroughout human history, there have been thousands of religions and probably tens of thousands of a wild variety of gods. While most of the gods looked and acted suspiciously like humans, there were (and are) more than a few animal gods, weird multi-limbed humanoid gods, and outright fantastical things that Marvel Comics couldn’t have dreamed up. All of those gods had one thing in common, some group of humans invented them and believed in them. All of those whacky humans believed they knew how the universe worked and their religion and gods were at the core of that belief. So, pardon me if the religion of the century hasn’t impressed me any more than the ones from previous centuries.

d9f4f5636c09ad874736377df3f774a4One of the vital reasons the founders of the United States of America chose not to base the Constitution and the country’s foundations on religion is that humans have historically gone to weird and terrible lengths to sustain their beliefs. If a nation (as many have) adopts a religion as a core value, it is necessary to force everyone to pretend to believe the tenants of that religion; no matter how ridiculous those concepts may be. When the physical world contradicts almost any of the religion’s beliefs, the promoters/priests of the religion are forced to “burn the heretic” to protect the religion from reality. In many instances in history, that reaction has set back human progress, society, and security enough cause societies and countries to collapse into religious and moral decadence. It is, in fact, a clearly stupid idea.

Even being an atheist requires belief, just not as much. I cannot say I know there are no gods or afterlife. I can say I absolutely believe individual humans only get one shot at life and that what we call our being or spirit dissipates into nothingness the moment we die. Weirdly consistently, a superstitious person can say they absolutely know there is a god and an afterlife. They can say that, but without a shred of evidence what they are saying is “I don’t know the difference between knowing and believing and I don’t care.” No rational person should take that sort of person seriously, ever.

The serious aspect of people who are unaware of the difference between knowing and believing is the danger those people pose to the stability of a society and to the sustainability of the species. History has demonstrated that superstitious people will commit mass murder and cultural suicide in the service of their delusions. So, while their beliefs are nothing to consider seriously, their threat is very real and constant. People driven by belief are dangerous to all life on this planet.

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