Saturday, November 12, 2011

Fact Or Faith

"I have become more and more concerned over the last 10 years by the extent to which even intelligent, even college-educated people can end up being sucked into these little black holes of absurdity." Stephen Law

Those of us of a skeptical disposition are often derided at the first opportunity. So and so saw a ghost in her bedroom, such and such felt a “presence” in their basement. This is quickly followed by the usual self begging question: “How do you explain it?” For them, a personal anecdote is all the evidence they require, and the inability to instantly explain away the tale of someone you've never met, in a place you've never been, in a situation that cannot be repeated without the advent of time travel, is in its self an absolute law. If such were the evidential minimum required of our legal system, many an innocent man would long since have hanged.

This is not to say strange things don't happen, only, what one might find inexplicable, and therefore supernatural, is more often perfectly explicable and very natural with the right skills and the knowledge of what to look for. For instance, we often find our friend the baker assuring us that the red spot on our neck is skin cancer, only to have a dermatologist diagnose a rash.

Human beings cannot bear to be without explanation, and so they grab the quickest one to hand when all others seem to fail in magnitude to the response. Certainly emotion plays its role in the rush to judgment, and those already predisposed to believe a certain way will more quickly interpret any unusual experience through that very personal lens. It is for this reason Mexican Catholics see the Virgin Mary in tortillas but not the Buddha.

Lack of objectivity is the problem but critical thinking can in large part be a solution. To examine any experience properly, or belief for that matter, we must always be willing to play devil's advocate and consider its opposite. Most people believe they are fair, but when it comes to giving the benefit of the doubt, that same majority are all too quick to hand in their verdict. We know these people, may even love one or two of them, and for that same reason hope, not to change their minds, but give them the means to change them for themselves.

To the believer belief is enough. Disagreements are matters of opinion, an argument is a string of obscenities, and the mindset of the believer is such that they “feel” they are incapable of being deceived. Basic critical thinking skills are so rare that they can be forgiven an ignorance of logic, but to not concede that one can be mistaken is to turn Papal Infallibility into a commonplace. Have they never seen a magic act?

Yet, the fact that this is a faith belief is not the crux of the matter. Faith is beyond proof, if it were not so it would not be faith. And, though the skeptic may grow irritated by the use of this intellectual dodge most of us are willing, in a person to person context at least, to lower our sword's and play nice.

However, this is not enough, the believer must have it both ways, both faith and fact, and in the attempt to have it so they unknowingly break all the basic rules of argument. What makes for even more frustration is that you cannot bring them to see that there are any rules at all. They cannot be fooled, and in believing so break the first rule of the examination of any argument: they can't be wrong.

It is the skeptic who is immediately accused of arrogance and closed-mindedness, but if the believer can never be wrong who is being truly arrogant?

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