I’ve been preparing a presentation to distinguish science and belief, a little of which appears in Blog 11. Other postings here cover the current science wars in which belief is threatened by science (Blog 38, Blog 48, Blog 71, and Blog 77). For contrast, let’s look at the legitimate function of belief.
Belief is a conviction of how the world is. It may, or may not, be supported by evidence. Science has one belief—that the physical universe is orderly and its information can be arranged in logical structures called “theory.” Science is tested and corrected; other belief need not have such constraints. However, whatever the origin of the belief, the individual is responsible for his choice of it. Belief is chosen.
Religion is based on belief, but not all belief is religious. Politics, religion, law, and sometimes commerce are matters belief. Private ownership of property is a belief. Sometimes a law. Belief is often the basis of an identity, a sense of belonging. “I am a ____ (Catholic, Republican, liberal, member of … fill in the blank). Even the Bible identifies associations and origins by belief as indicated by clothing: wool, linen, or mixed fiber. We feel most comfortable when we’re associated with others who believe as we do.
What is the legitimate function of belief? Science isn’t the only way of knowing. Science can’t tell right from wrong, or how to choose a mate. As Einstein said, science can ascertain what is, not what should be. If life is a search for love and meaning and justice, then belief is guidance in how to conduct that search.
The trouble, the war on science*, arises when belief (religious or otherwise) makes a claim regarding physical reality. If the physical facts are contrary to belief, the result is defense, not evaluation of the belief. It is belief that must bend to facts, or the defense will become war and people will be hurt. When Galileo saw the moons of Jupiter in his telescope some 400 years ago, his observations were contrary to religious dogma that the universe was centered on the earth. For his facts, Galileo faced the inquisition. Eventually, the Church apparently relinquished its insistence upon an earth-centered physical universe. When belief is contrary to fact, defense is the habitual response for individuals, political parties, and governments. Defenders see offense as the best defense. Consider ISIS.
Defense inhibits discussion. We see that inhibition particularly in the U.S. Congress, where defense of political position and belief prevents solution of social problems: disparity of opportunity, budget, immigration, foreign policy, health care, national parks.
If you can’t talk about a problem, you are powerless to change it. That’s true in a marriage, in a business, or in a legislature. Distressed individuals or couples seek counseling, and the counselor makes it permissible to talk about the underlying problems—the beliefs, the desires, the facts. Legislatures need counselors.
And why is discussion of belief important?
Acting on belief that is contrary to fact is ultimately self-destructive. As an extreme example, Nazi Germany acted on a belief of German superiority. Claiming “weapons of mass destruction,” the U.S. initiated an unending war in the Middle East. Jared Diamond** documented other societies that collapsed under beliefs contrary to their ecological facts. Companies that follow beliefs contrary to economic facts go out of business. Or expend themselves in conflicts. Historically, every national empire has exhausted itself in wars of foreign domination.
Now, some 27 years after the United Nations identified the climate problem, the U.S. is still defending political beliefs while ignoring fact. We need to talk about our beliefs and our facts, not shout louder to defend or promote them. Belief has a valid function. It’s a guide. Best used in concert with facts.
* “The War on Science,” National Geographic magazine, March 2015.
** Diamond, Jared. Collapse. How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Viking, The Penguin Group, 2005.