Sunday, July 31, 2005

Supernatural: Truth Versus Proof

Why is it that if something can't be explained by natural causes, that spiritualists, believers, and other conspiracy-minded people think that it proves them right? Like ths Shroud of Turin. I was just reading about the Shroud of Turin and all the proof that it's fake. And yet pepol

And what's even worse is when something is explained by natural causes, yet still


Hey, this post was supposed to be deleted. What the hell. I didn't have the time to work on it, so I just closed out the window, believing it would disappear forever. And then I check my mail this morning, and see a comment about this from loyal reader Sampo. Stupid Blogger! But now that someone's commented on it, I shouldn't erase it; so I guess I'll just finish it. Oh snap, and then when I saved this version as a draft to finish later, it removed the original post anyway. Oh well.

But my point wasn't so much that people do believe in the supernatural. It's that they believe that if we can't prove that natural causes are responsible, that this is automatic proof that supernatural causes are responsible. Proof which we are fools for not accepting. Specifically, that they use lack of natural explanation as ipso facto proof of their preferred supernatural explanation. BTW, by "supernatural", I don't just mean ghosts or gods, but anything that goes against the conventional, natural explanation.

For example, if someone sees strange lights in the sky, and it wasn't a jet or weather-balloon or other obvious explanation, then it can't be anything else but a UFO. For these people, we need to prove that it has some natural cause, but they don't need any proof for it to be a UFO. For them, our inability to prove natural causes is all the proof they need; because they take UFO as the default position ("default position" meaning the position we should adopt if we are unable to find other causes).

And this is entirely backwards. It's not that the supernatural position is the default; which we believe if nothing else is conclusive. In fact, because the supernatural is unexplained, unproven, and unknown; it is the absolute last position we should ever accept. One requiring a much higher level of proof than natural causes. Just because strange lights in the sky can't be explained, doesn't mean that we should allow ourselves to take an even more outlandish position. The default position is that there is a natural explanation which is unknown to us. And it must be this way.

Yet this is exactly what believers always do. Once they dismiss the regular, obvious stuff, they feel free to launch into all kinds of crazy-ass irregular stuff, which often has absolutely no evidence whatsoever. In fact, the regular stuff must face very rigid standards of evidence (such as, test aircraft can only do what we know aircraft are able to do). Yet, we don't know if interstellar travel is even possible. Or if there can be intelligent life on other planets. Or if any aliens have ever found our planet. Yet somehow, UFO's don't need to be held to any kind of standards of what we know. For these people, once you dismiss the ordinary, anything goes.

And this goes for ghost-believers, who don't need to prove that ghosts exist for them to insist that ghosts are the only explanation. And miracle-believers, who don't need to prove that their god(s) exist, or prove that the "miracle" wasn't the work of another god or devil. And conspiracy mongers, who don't need to prove that elections were rigged or that missiles blew-up the Pentagon. All they have to do is shoot a few holes into the conventional belief, before they feel safe in unloading their pet theory. And somehow, these theories always go in the direction of proving the person's worldview, or denouncing the opposition. I suspect that is not a coincidence.
Free to Believe

Now, before I go too far, I'll just repeat something I always say. I don't care if people believe in these things. Anyone can believe in anything they want to believe in, as far as I'm concerned. I have no problem with that. My only problem is when they insist that their evidenceless beliefs hold sway over me, and insist that I'm blind for not adopting their beliefs. If someone wants to believe in God or that PNAC was responsible for 9/11, that's fine. I just can't stand it when these people call me a fool for not accepting beliefs without proof. All the proof that they can offer is to use rigorous (and often invented) evidence to shoot-down the conventional theory; and then feel free to launch into all kinds of crazy-ass theories, which can't even hold up to the most casual tests.

The only thing that holds sway with me is evidence. And the theories that I most want to believe in are the theories that require the most evidence. Unfortunately for these people, they use the opposite approach, and require the least evidence for what they want to believe most. And that is the surest trap for being wrong.

Close-Minded Fools

And these people have no idea of what our problem is. They always accuse us of being close-minded. US! Yet we're the ones taking the normal, default position of requiring solid proof, just as these people do when they're not discussing their pet theory; and they're the ones who have already made up their minds, sans proof.

Because again, their "proof" always relies on them debunking the conventional theory; and never on actually proving their own theory. As if it's enough to discredit the Warren Commission, rather than being required to actually prove that the CIA/Mafia/Cubans/Aliens did it. They can offer some loose connections and peculiar events, and call us all close-minded fools for not seeing the connection that was invented in their heads.

We see this exact same thing with the creationist/Intelligent Design crowd. They insist that finding flaws and unexplained gaps in evolution is enough to prove their own theory. Because just like these other conspiracy theorists, they spend all their time debunking the opposing theory; and think this is sufficient to prove their own theory. In this case, we apparently have to prove every step of the evolutionary process, or they dismiss the whole thing; yet they never have to explain even basic stuff, like where their god came from, or why he did such a lousy job of it. And still they attack us for being close-minded, because we actually expect to see such proof; the same level of proof that they'd require regarding any other matter. And the same level of proof they demand from us regarding the theory they're trying to debunk, but which they can't provide for their own theory.

And often, these theorists turn to an argument of investigation and honesty; suggesting that we have something to hide for not investigating deeply enough. The ID'ers insist that if scientists have nothing to hide, they should be open to allowing ID to be taught to children. And 9/11 conspiracy people insist on deeper investigations into the causes. But all this is a cheap ruse. A cover, for their real aims. Because there already were investigations, which they deem illegitimate or insufficient. And the only investigations they will accept are the ones that prove them right; and so the investigations will never end.

The 9/11 conspiracies are so chock full of holes that it's insulting to even take them seriously (I've written a post detailing these, but haven't yet finished it). And Intelligent Design is just a cruel joke on our children, for the sake of preserving the parents' bruised egos. Yet we're told we have to investigate and investigate some more; and if we're not scared of the truth being uncovered, we shouldn't stop these eternal investigations. And whether or not these investigations continue, the theorists will continue to spout off their proofless theory, while demanding still more proof from us. Ridiculous.

But then again, it worked for the anti-Clinton theorists. Their eternal investigation of Whitewater eventually led to impeachment (for an entirely unrelated offense); so I guess there might be an end to all this after all. And after all that investigation and millions of dollars, these people still believe that Whitewater proved Clinton to be a crook. So goes the mind of the conspiracy theorist. They insist they want an investigation, but they don't require one for themselves; because they already think they have the truth and require no proof.

When a Theory Becomes a Fact

And here's an idea of what we're up against. I was over at AmericaBlog the other day discussing conspiracy theories, and one of the other commenters wrote: "Some people would say that Rove and all the outrage is just a conspiracy theory, so when does a theory become fact? Is it 25 years down the line when more information comes out?"

I was dumbstruck. Truly dumbstruck. Whether intentionally or not, this person is mocking the very idea of proof and evidence. I'm sure they studied the Scientific Method in classrooms throughout their educative years, but somehow failed to see how those standards apply to everything else. So yes, it is when the information comes out that a conspiracy theory becomes the conventional theory. Just like how an educated guess becomes "Science" when they can verify and prove that it's true. Whether that takes 25 years or 25 seconds, it doesn't matter. All that matters is that we see reasonable proof before we accept them as fact. But until we have such evidence, we have nothing but a guess.

That is the basis for science, and is the standard that everyone works on, until it comes to their pet theory. A religious person might disbelieve every conspiracy theory, ghost story, and UFO tale, for lack of good proof; but believe in every damn weeping Virgin Mary story they read. Or a conspiracy nut might laugh at every miracle story they hear, seeing right through the piss-poor proof; yet believe in every damn conspiracy that passes their way.

So it isn't that some people are just unable to understand the idea of proof, or are just gullible dopes who believe everything. Because nobody does. People have their own pet theories that they fall victim to, and don't require proof for; but are vigilant about denying similar proofless theories. We immediately scoff at the idea of Clinton selling cocaine from the Whitehouse or murdering forty or so enemies, never even giving these ideas a serious thought; yet require no proof to believe in a wide-reaching rightwing conspiracy to attack our own nation, killing thousands. Most laughable of all is the idea that they'd include a boob like Bush in on these plans. I wouldn't include that man in planning a surprise party, forget about the most traitorous action in our nation's history. But these people really dislike Bush, making anything possible. They believe these things because they want to believe them. Just as rightwingers disliked Clinton, and believed he murdered Vince Foster and all those other people.

And that's why we must stay vigilant about all levels of proof, because its so easy to fall prey to our desires and wishful thinking. If you want Bush to be responsible for 9/11, it's far too easy to make yourself believe it. And it's just amazing how these same people will quickly scoff at others' unproven beliefs, yet denounce everyone as fools regarding their own beliefs.

Truth Insufficient

And part of the problem is an inherent misunderstanding about proof and science. They think it's just about discovering The truth. But that isn't it at all. It's not enough for something to be true; we have to be able to prove that it's true. And if the Truth isn't provable, then we can't believe in it; no matter how tempting it is to believe.

In fact, it is better to believe something false which has proof on its side, than to believe something true which has no proof. For instance, if God embedded fossils into the earth to test our belief in Him, it would be better and more scientific to believe in the false evidence, than to dismiss it and believe the unproven belief. But the emphasis is always on the proof, and not on the truth. And even if something is true, it's not enough to disprove the opposing theories; you have to be able prove your own, or you've got nothing but a conspiracy theory.

And that is a good definition of conspiracy theory. We label something as a conspiracy theory when it involves dismissing a conventional theory for not having enough solid proof, while pushing their own theory, which has even less proof. Because again, they believe these things, not because of the solid proof; but because they want to believe. They fall victim to their own desires. The AmericaBlog poster above even hinted to this by saying: "I just feel more sure that everyone is up to no good and hiding it as best they can, i don't get let down too often that way."

And to this poor soul, that's enough proof to put belief in any theory. This person is a victim of their own desires and wishes. For this person, these conspiracies must be true because they "feel more sure that everyone is up to no good." But that's completely absurd, and justifies belief in anything. And it goes in complete defiance of any reasonable standard of proof. All religious people feel sure that their god is real, but it's impossible that they are all correct; and all too possible that they're all wrong.

Take the example about the Rove thing being a conspiracy theory. Yes, it would be a conspiracy theory, if we had no proof of it. But we do have proof. People have testified that he did these things, and I believe that Rove himself has confessed to much of it. And that's why it's not a conspiracy theory. But it's not a conventional theory because it's widely accepted. It's widely accepted because there is solid proof; which is what makes it a conventional theory. That's just how this works.

In fact, all of this Rove stuff was a kooky theory, until Matt Cooper dropped his bombshell; even though Joe Wilson had hinted to it long before. But after Cooper's revelations, it had become the conventional theory. So now, the idea that Rove isn't involved in this is the wacko theory. And that's all it takes to go from conspiracy theory to conventional theory, or vice versa: for proof to come out.

And when we can see aliens or God testifying that they exist, or when some of these PNAC cohorts admit that they planned 9/11; we can stop calling them conspiracy theories. But until then, we would be fools for believing them to be true. Finding motive and a plausible theory is only the beginning to finding the truth; not the end.

Rational Man

Because here's the thing. Maybe PNAC is responsible for 9/11. And maybe the GOP really did rig the election machines. And maybe aliens really are anally probing all our farmers. And maybe God really is making the Virgin Mary's image appear on sandwiches and lampposts. But as I said, it's not enough for these things to be true. That's the first step. But far more important, we have to have proof that these things are true.

And until we have proof of these things, we could just as easily assume that the Kennedys were responsible for 9/11, and that Ralph Nader rigged the election and probed those farmers, and that it's the Devil himself who is making those images appear. Or maybe God did all these things to test our faith in Him. And I see no reason to assume that these explanations are any less likely than the regular conspiracy theories. Because if we don't require positive proof, we can theorize just about anything. And that's why we require proof. I can invent an infinite number of plausible theories, but none of them are valid without solid proof.

And this is so because it must be so. We must hold to rigid standards of proof. Because if we don't, we allow ourselves to fly willy-nilly to any kind of belief, and become victims to our own dreams. And if that means that we miss out on actual wrong-doings, or anger our god(s); so be it. We must take a rigid standard of proof, and the standard for supernatural theories must be more stringent than those for natural theories. It must be so, or we must renounce any pretense of being rational, scientific beings. I'm not saying that people can't believe in these things. I'm just saying that they shouldn't be surprised when people treat them like irrational nuts.


The Sampo said...

either this post got eaten by blogger...or you're really bad at haiku.

But i agree. Supernaturalism seems to be a very common way of interpreting the world. I would suspect that's because it is far easier to believe than it is to actually take the time to understand something. This sort of insanity seems to be built into the human genome as it has persisted for so long without evidence and to the detriment of the advancement of the species.

Why DNA would select for this trait over the course of our evolution is beyond me...

Anonymous said...

religion is hope, no one understands the meaning of life, on the other hand just because the answer is unkown , does'nt mean there is no answer .keeps you thinking, sends your mind in circles

Doctor Biobrain said...

Actually Anonymous, my mind is pretty clear about the whole thing. I really think you're making this much more difficult than it needs to be. If you don't know the answer, there's really no reason to guess. I refuse to believe that life is a pop quiz.

And the phrase "religion is hope" is quite meaningless. There are quite a few religious people who are miserable due to their religious beliefs.

Kyle said...


Congratulations on a fantastic argument-- now if only we can get those people to take it as proof of their assumptions.

I know I'm guilty of it from time to time... Many of us are. But sometimes, it's taken way too far.

So kudos to you for making this observation, I agree wholeheartedly.