14 February 2022
Belief and its role in science
Where does knowledge come from?
What role does belief play in science? Ideally, none whatsoever. Science is about hard facts. The laws of physics don't care about what your peers say and who you trust. Unfortunately, the reality is that belief plays an instrumental role in scientific endeavours. It is simply impossible to independently verify all the things we know. Or have you measured the circumference of the earth to confirm its shape and size? Have you confirmed that antibiotics really help clearing a bacterial infection? Have you confirmed that meat is rich in protein and spaghetti are rich in carbohydrates? The likely answer to some or all of these questions is negative. These things aren't self-evident at all, how come we know them?
This is where a feeling of epistemological terror starts setting in for all those who have deluded themselves into thinking that their knowledge is absolute, that they possess a modern, scientific mindset that is firmly and unquestionably rooted in reality. But the reality is: We know because someone told us. Maybe it was a person of authority like a teacher, professor or parent. Maybe you read it in a text book or in the news. Note that at this point, the quality of your belief is no better than if an elder told you that he encountered a snake that spoke to him. There is nothing, absolutely nothing scientific about this kind of propagation of knowledge. It is only science if there is a feedback loop where claims are tested against the real world with experiments. Everything else is mere dissemination of information that may or may not be true.
Of course, as mentioned before, there is a practical concern here: We can't verify everything we learn, we simply lack the time and other resources required for that. So we are forced piece together a worldview in a most unscientific manner, by collecting scraps of information from all around us, unable to confidently distinguish between what is correct and what isn't. Our worldview becomes an amalgamation of what we personally experienced, what other people told us, what we read, and so on. Again, I cannot stress enough how unscientific all of that is, and it doesn't matter who you are, even Einstein had to deal with this problem. Most people are only subconsciously aware of this problem and its severity. They cope with it by going with the majority opinion. This heuristic requires little effort and intellect and works well enough most of the time, but every once in a while, the majority opinion is a dangerous falsehood, and this is how witch burning comes about.
The popularity of a belief is just one of many signals that facilitate making conclusions about its relevance. There are far better strategies to cope with the influx of confusing and conflicting information. These strategies allow us to resist manipulation and deception and to construct a sane and coherent worldview - which is a precondition for the kind of robust, enlightened society a human wants to live in. One of my favourite such strategies is a tandem of two techniques, which I'll call sourcing and cross-examination.
Sourcing is a very simple technique, but it requires a fair bit of awareness and care to apply rigorously at all times. Let us look at an example: Suppose Bob says "There is a bottle of wine in the basement." What did you learn? That there is a bottle of wine in the basement? Wrong! You learned that Bob said that there is a bottle of wine in the basement. That's not the same thing. If Bob has no reason to deceive you and really knows the whereabouts of this bottle of wine, then it is very likely true that there is a bottle of wine in the basement. But you don't know. All you really know is that Bob told you that. Bob could have misremembered or someone else could have already taken the bottle of wine. You will only know that Bob was right once you actually are in the basement and see the bottle of wine.
This concept is actually analogue to the Treachery of Images. A depiction of a pipe is not a pipe. In the same vein, knowing that Bob said that a bottle of wine is in the basement is not knowing that a bottle of wine is in the basement. We could call it the treachery of the spoken word or the treachery of the written word. The treachery being the fact that you know that someone uttered those words, but you do not know the content of those words to be true. Never confuse the two.
And of course this applies to every single piece of information you ever came across in your entire life. Know where it came from, or if you don't, adorn it with a big question mark, metaphorically speaking. This is of utmost importance for epistemological hygiene.
With cross-examination I mean exactly the thing that happens in a trial: Information is collected from many sources of varying bias and reliability. Then, by uncovering both contradictions and congruences between the claims, an attempt is made to puzzle together the truth. A true explanation must be free from contradictions, this constraint allows us to discard a lot of theories and also unreliable sources of information, for example those that keep disseminating contradictory claims.
Putting it all together
By clearly distinguishing between things you know and things you have read or heard, by sourcing where the information came from, by collecting your information from a wide range of sources and by cross-examining all the available information, it is possible to consistently arrive at a worldview that is far closer to the truth than the majority opinion. But, fundamentally, it is impossible to establish a worldview that is not tainted by belief. All we can do is to acknowledge this fact and work around it with various techniques and thinking strategies.
good post, I had this realization a couple of years ago and am glad more people are understanding this.