When To Believe

I have not seen the destruction in New York City. I have not yet even seen the destruction at the Pentagon. Did they happen? Many people have noted the movie-like quality of the images. Hollywood does such a good job that the crumbling of New York is not a surprise in the movies. Why then should we believe that anything happened in New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia on September 11th?

There is a book, "Evidence that Demands a Verdict" by Josh McDowell which purports evidence for God. Why don't I believe it?

The answer to these questions is the same. Movies and the book are single sources. Witnesses to god(s) have only the bible or Koran as a source, aside from their own observations. In contrast, when the World Trade Center buildings went down I had:

  • Web reports from CNN, the Washington Post, the New York Times, U.S. News and World Report
  • National Public Radio
  • Email from trusted friends who were eye witnesses in both DC and New York
  • Phone calls. One friend said he was struck by the silence for four days. He lives in Georgetown, just under the flight path of planes from National Airport, which (used to) go over the Potomac and past the White House.

In other words, I had many sources of information, and from previous experience with them, I know that they are not, for the most part, using each other as sources. Multiple independent sources of evidence leads credence to (but does not prove) an idea or hypothesis.

Science works the same way. A recent report claimed (again!) that there is translation in the nucleus of a eukaryote. Because mRNA is normally exported to the cytoplasm and translated there, this is hard to believe! But if many other independent researchers confirm the report --- after having had their manuscripts annealed and baked in the purifying fires of peer review -- then maybe I will be convinced. But I would only be convinced if they report having done all the proper controls, and there were no alternative simpler explanations. If it made biological sense, that would help but is not essential. Still, how I think biology works is relevant to judging whether it is true, since a good explanation strengthens an argument. In this case I am not likely to make the major effort to repeat the experiments myself, but who knows? Maybe it will be commonplace someday and continously seen in the lab or maybe it will die like cold fusion and polywater, which were two exciting observations that could not be repeated.

I started this essay when I was thinking about thinking about returning "Evidence that Demands a Verdict", which I have borrowed from a friend at the Glen Echo Friday Night Contra Dance. The book was completely unconvincing to me because its "evidence" was in the bible itself. This is a circularly closed logic system. Unlike the recent tragic events, I can't go out and test it, and every religious person I've ever talked to (many!) have always in the end referred back to the single source of the bible. I could, in contrast, drive down 395 and gawk. True, I can have life experiences such as enlightenment events, but nothing in those extremely interesting life-turning moments points towards an external god. The excitement of an enlightenment event appears to be entirely within my own mind. No voodoo or supernatural being is needed to understand what happened. It is easily interpreted as "merely" a psychological event. In Synchronicity and the Stories of Our Lives author Robert H. Hopcke points out that synchronistic events may just be random coincidences. But so what? Even as impressive as some of these are, what matters is how we use them to better our own and the lives of others.

Tom Schneider

origin: 2001 September 18
updated: 2001 September 25