We discussed these ideas in a few earlier posts, notably Creationism, Politics, and Everything, but that was more than four years ago and it’s time we raised the subject again. As we recently said in Why Does Creationism Endure?:
One might justifiably think that when an obviously faulty belief exists and is countered with a clearly superior explanation, the wrong belief should fade away. This routinely happens in science — see Wikipedia’s list of Superseded scientific theories. But people trained in science, who appreciate the concept of a disproved hypothesis, are far from a majority of the population.
How do we decide which ideas are correct and which are wrong? At the most basic level, we have our biological senses. They work fairly well. They have to or we wouldn’t be alive. What’s great about them is that we don’t have to think to receive sensory input. You know when you’ve put your hand on a hot stove. If not, you’re in trouble. If someone’s sensory apparatus is so defective that he doesn’t know he’s walking off a cliff — well, he’s gone. His genome is automatically filtered out of the gene pool. The feedback of natural selection is fast and final.
Aside from that, the few human activities that provide reasonably certain resolution of errors and disagreements are science, engineering, and free enterprise (military tactics too, but that’s a kind of engineering). What those activities have in common is rapid, readily perceived feedback from the real world. There are also a few — very few — intellectual areas where there’s little or no disagreement — arithmetic, geometry, and Aristotelian logic are the best examples. Although some scientists, mathematicians, etc. have been religious, religious doctrine has never, so far as we know, contributed to such activities.
As for the rest of human affairs, by the time errors are detected (if they ever are) and generally acknowledged (which is rare) it’s often too late to make corrections. With politics (a subset of philosophy), feedback is often delayed, sometimes for generations. A government doesn’t know it’s gone wrong until it’s smacked by economic collapse, civil war, revolution, or foreign conquest — maybe all of the above. Nations rise and fall, and when they fall their philosophy and gods often fall with them. But that kind of historical judgment isn’t immediate, and the lessons, although harsh, aren’t permanent. The same errors reappear elsewhere, again and again.
Philosophy and religion provide no reliable mechanism for error correction. If one wants to believe in Plato’s theory of Forms, it doesn’t accomplish anything, but it doesn’t seem to result in any harm. It’s a relatively benign personal choice — see Faith-Based and Evidence-Based Thinking. One may even find fellowship in the company of others who believe the same thing. Such beliefs can persist, often for millennia. As with Plato’s forms, belief in things like Noah’s Ark has no serious consequences — except sometimes in academia, but that’s not serious.
Everyone who holds unverifiable theological ideas imagines that he is correct, notwithstanding that his ideas conflict with those of others who are equally certain. Why is there such disagreement? It’s because such ideas are untestable. There’s no feedback from reality. Supernatural beliefs have no dispute resolution mechanism — in this world. When such a system encounters a competing supernatural view, conflict is almost inevitable, and the only advantage to that method of resolving conflicts is that it makes for interesting history.
There are some exceptions where feedback is immediate, such as when a religious leader makes a very specific prediction about the immediate future that fails to occur, or in the case of faith healing, which can result in death instead of an otherwise available cure, but most religious leaders are clever enough to avoid such obvious traps. Instead, the promised feedback is in the afterlife — a promise for which preachers are never accountable.
A belief system that provides no feedback from reality is pure gold for those who promote it and make their living from believers. It’s why creationist websites rarely allow comments, and those that do vigorously expunge what they consider disagreeable commentary. They seem to instinctively avoid feedback.
The fascinating thing about science is that it has emerged from philosophy (it was once called natural philosophy) by devising what philosophy had always been lacking — a rigorous technique for obtaining feedback. We know it as scientific method.
Science uses real-world testing, which is why geocentrism, the recent global flood, creationism, the luminiferous aether, phlogiston, and so many other wrong ideas have been abandoned — they all failed the reality test. In science, we look to the natural world for answers, and when an idea is shown to be incompatible with reality, everyone drops it. Through mechanisms such as publication of research in scientific journals, peer review, verifiable data, and reproducibility of results (where applicable), scientific progress is achieved through the falsification of incorrect theories and the validation of theories which are increasingly closer to truth.
And then there’s the free enterprise system — a/k/a capitalism, a term which has a negative aura because of endless propaganda. Correctly practiced (an important proviso), it flourishes in free markets and thrives on competition. The cumulative results of voluntary transactions peacefully resolve competition among products and practices by rewarding those which succeed and discouraging those that fail. The results speak for themselves in terms of rising living standards. Coercion, fraud, and political interference almost always guarantee failure or inferior results — as with government-backed cartels, and (dare we say it?) government-backed unions.
The problems in human affairs (mostly philosophical, religious, and political) are because those activities lack systems for: (1) rapid error detection; and (2) peaceful, verifiable dispute resolution. The Founders had it right — at least in the limited case of religion. Where there is no realistic error detection or dispute resolution mechanism, government must be forbidden to coerce acceptance of any doctrine. Except for the protection of an individual’s life, liberty, and property (the value of which really is self-evident), coercion must be renounced.
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