29 May 2009

Beliefs and Opinions: A Thought Experiment

One of the many rhetorical devices used by the faithful is the argument that science is also just a belief system. It is unfortunate that the word 'belief' has two distinct meanings that are easily confused if one is not careful. Here I propose a thought experiment to prise out how psychologically and emotionally different they are. It would, indeed, be better if one were to use different words, such as faith and opinion, to delineate their separate natures - but that would destroy the religious rhetoric.

Let's assume you have a religious faith, whatever it might be. Your faith is in a particular set of doctrines and probably a particular deity. From the point of view of a believer, the beliefs are obvious, self-evident truths. Now, is it possible to have two faiths simultaneously?

Is it possible to be, for example, a Roman Catholic and a Zen Buddhist at the same time? Is it possible to be a Jehovah's Witness and a Hassidic Jew at the same time? Is it possible to hold two distinct and different religious beliefs simultaneously?

The beliefs have to be distinct in that any fusion between two belief systems is a form of syncretism and thereby results in a third belief system that is different from its two original components. Many cults have developed as tributaries from one main source, but they still regard themselves as different with a distinct set of beliefs.

I propose that it is not possible to hold two different religious beliefs simultaneously. It is just not possible to have the emtional certainty in two conflicting beliefs, such as in an eternal heaven and hell and in rebirth, at the same time.

Now, let us add to our thought experiment some simple scientific 'beliefs'. "I believe the sun will rise tomorrow." That is not a particularly controversial belief but perfectly scientific. Is it possible to hold such a 'belief' and at the same time hold on to one's religious faith? There are innumerable scientific propositions about our universe that are indisputable. There are also many scientific propositions that are still hypotheses waiting for verification or falsification. By phrasing every scientific proposition in the future tense gives them all the status of hypotheses waiting for personal testing.

This is not the place to delve more deeply into the philosophy of science; remember, this is a psychological thought experiment. The point here is that the religious believer thinks that by labelling scientific propositions as 'belief' he is according them equal status to the doctrines of his religious belief. But they are not the same thing - they are two different states of mind. That is why it is perfectly possible to be a religious believer and a scientist at the same time. The vast majority of science does not even impinge on religious doctrines. When it does, then the individual has a dilemma.

I am becoming convinced that religious belief is an emotional state of mind, somewhat like being in love. Try telling someone that the love they have for their partner is a delusion! What kind of reaction would you get? Try also telling someone who is not in love that their "non-love" is actually in reality a form of love! What reaction would you get then? This aspect of belief needs some research but would be interesting to see who would have the bravery to fund it.

For the religious believer, trying to call scientific propositions beliefs is the sign of self defence. Imagine someone told you that your partner had been unfaithful to you. The reactions are myriad, from disbelief to outright divorce. The emotional turmoil is very real but love is not so easy to turn off, even in the face of evidence that it isn't reciprocated.

These last thoughts require another article. For now, it suffices to say that religious faith is an altogether different state of mind to opinions held about scientific theories - our language should reflect this difference rather than obscure it.

Also published at Asylum Joy.

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