What to Believe

Posted Jun 6, 2004
Last Updated Nov 5, 2011

Most of the statements following this introduction will make you roll your eyes or even gasp with incredulous laughter… but it's likely that one statement will shut you up with a bit of indignant anger. But I hope you continue reading beyond that statement.

I do not believe that I have an invisible dragon in my garage, partly because I have no garage, and partly because I don't believe in invisible dragons. I don't believe that my ancestors may have been mosquitoes, or that I have ever been a mosquito, or that any human has been, is, or ever will be a mosquito—or any other living entity other than the human being they happen to already be. Needless to say, I don't believe I was a mosquito in a past life, and I don't believe I'll be one in the next—partly because of the previous disbelief, and partly because I don't believe in previous or afterlives. I don't believe that the alignment of Jupiter and Mars and Venus in the sky will affect how long I live, whom my kids marry, or whether the Lakers win the NBA championship this year. I also do not believe that spirits swirl around my head as I type or sleep, and I highly doubt anyone has ever walked on water for more than a fraction of a second (unless it was frozen water).

Well I suppose I could go on and on forever on what it is that I don't believe, since my list of disbeliefs is much longer than my list of beliefs. I won't bother to seriously debate why I disbelieve any of the above statements, but I will share a couple of my beliefs that play a role in why I don't believe anything above.

I believe that our world is driven by basic physical laws like gravity. I believe that mathematics is universal. I believe that I should only believe something I can prove and leave anything beyond proof also beyond belief. And I believe that removing mysticism from beliefs does not remove the value and wonder from our world.

The first two beliefs are easily understood, since all of us (within a gravitational field) remain bound to gravity every moment of our lives; and every time we add a finger to the next finger we find that they always equal two fingers.

The third belief is philosophical, as it introduces the word "should" and implies an approach to life, an "ought". I believe the third statement because of the following logic: an infinite number of people could bring to me an infinite number of unverifiable claims, meaning that I could quickly fill the limits of my mind with wild and useless facts that do not pertain in any measure to the reality of our universe and lives. Just because people say it's so, doesn't mean it’s so. People have said that the Earth is flat, that witches float and that Sylvia Brown (and her ilk) is not a fraud… but I won't bother believing any of those claims. Show me evidence, and I might consider it… but it better be evidence that I can reproduce.

I can reproduce my stone falling to earth or math staying consistent, and I can reproduce tests on so-called psychics that show they cannot back their claims. I can reproduce good results by using good evidence, so I believe that it is best to believe only what can be proven. Belief in the unproven is statistically more likely to produce erroneous thoughts and actions… so I keep them on another shelf called "conjecture" and "possibilities". Unproven ideas are good for expanding imagination and stretching limits of the mind… but they do not validate belief.

I believe that denying faith in mysticism does not mean that the world is without value simply because I can say that I believe in no mysticism and see that the world is a magnificently wonderful place; that life and beauty are inherently meaningful. I can't say that life has the same cosmic importance that mystics claim, since I don’t know that there is any external meaning to our lives. But we are conscious creatures with the capacity to love and enjoy the wonders and accomplishments that surround us. The emotional response we experience is, in itself, an indication of the value of our world.

We naturally see the meaning of the world from our own perspective. When we see a beautiful landscape we often give it our own value, recognizing that the value of the scene is created by our observation—without our appreciation it is devoid of value as we define it. Because of this habit, we make the mental jump to assume that we are also like a landscape—meaningless without an external appreciation. That external appreciation is what leads us to assume, in part, that there is an external consciousness such as God that gives us value. It is also just an assumption—it might be true, but has no proof and warrants no belief. It belongs in the realm of speculation.

When I regularly wrote columns for a chain of newspapers I wrote a column on evolution that simply stated that most people who disbelieve evolution have not taken the time to study it. The responses I received were mostly from enraged ministers who felt that a minion of evil was attempting to blind the eyes of the public. Among them was a letter from a pastor that said that "Since Mr. Olson and his kind are in the minority as to their atheistic beliefs, the burden of proof is really on them to show to all of us that God does not exist."

The irony is that I've never said that God does not exist, nor am I an atheist. The greater irony is that people who believe in improvable ideas place the burden of disproof on the shoulders of skeptics. The world currently accepts that arrangement simply because most of the world population throughout history has been raised to gladly accept improvable ideas as acceptable facts—beliefs.

Mystics assume that a non-mystical world is a barren world devoid of morality, love and beauty. Mystics assume that a non-mystical world is meaningless. And they assume that non-mystics have an agenda to destroy the essence of "good" and "valuable." The same pastor wrote, "Mr. Olson well summed up his view of life, the reason why evolution as a philosophy, has created so much death and misery in the world."

What's wrong with the pastor's view is that I don't believe in evolution in the same way I believe in gravity… I think it's very likely a true explanation for our world, a highly probable theory for explaining the process of life. I believe the facts used to explain evolution, and I believe evolution is the best theory to explain those facts. But it's not a faith, and it does not offer many insights on how to wisely live a life. Yet, "Suicide, violence, abortion, racism, homosexuality, and other societal evils that are destroying America from within are the fruits of evolutionary thinking," wrote the pastor.

I don't believe his assertion that evolutionary thinking causes any "societal evils". Racism existed in the Old Testament, thousands of years before evolution came to human consciousness. Suicide was around in ancient Athens and Shakespearean tragedies long before the M.S. Beagle traveled to South America. Violence swept across the social, political and religious landscape of history at least a little before 1859 and the publication of The Origin of Species. Abortion was not newly discovered in the 19th Century. Homosexuality was supposedly the cause of Sodom's demise in the Bible; it's also unlikely that evolutionary thinking plays a role in the homosexuality of overcrowded rat (and other nonhuman) populations.

Mystics make claims about the world but don't bother to offer proof for their statements. They put the burden of proof on rational minds to disclaim the wild claims… and then ignore disproof when it comes. The rules of logic are twisted or blatantly ignored by mystics… who cushion their breaks from logic with admonitions to supernatural reasons that allow breaks to exist.

Over the years I've become amused with a certain sect of mystics who try to cover mystical claims in science. Scientists and scholars have long been aware of the pitfalls of this endeavor… and the whole business is aptly defined as pseudoscience.

Among the worst pseudoscience is the movement called Christian Science. Christian Science is, to me, a complete mystery… because it’s attempting to appease scientific standards of belief in a realm that cannot appease science and really doesn't need science. Advocates of Christian Science try to, for example, explain how the parting of the Red Sea could have happened according to natural physical laws or Jesus could have turned water to wine with normal chemical processes. They seem to forget entirely that the very thing they believe (an all-powerful, omniscient Creator does not need to "go by the rules" when performing miracles). Trying to define miracles in terms of physics, chemistry and biology is, in a way, admitting doubt in the Almighty.

I have more respect for the faith of a simple Christian than any claim of Christian Science. While I doubt claims by both (when explaining the nature of our world), at least the former is honest to its own framework of the world. Christian Science is, as a movement, an oxymoron. It makes more sense to say, "I believe in God because I feel he’s involved in my life," than to say, "I believe in God because miracles could conceivably happen within the framework of known physical laws." The simple faith is more viable because it is secluded from the reality of physical laws—laws that repeatedly reproduce consistent patterns of behavior that aren't easily defined as miracles to a critical mind.

I can't prove that mystics are wrong in their view of the universe, and they can't prove they are right. So it's an impasse. Usually I ignore the debate since I generally agree to disagree. But there are trends that often wake me from my complacent feelings.

I walked into a large local bookstore recently and found that the previously small science section had now been completely removed. Capitalism provides people with what they want, and stocks of unwanted material disappear into dusty warehouses. I noticed no dust on the growing shelves full of books devoted to spiritualism and New Age cults.

America is falling asleep, just like the pastors say, but not because of the symphony of reason and science as they profess—but rather to the lullaby of fairy tales and witch doctors.


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