This is perhaps a late arrival to the discussion, as I’ve been blogging for about three years now. What do I believe? Atheism is not an apt definition of what I believe, because atheism is a strange expression defining the absence of believe in a god or gods. We only need the term because theism (the belief in a god or gods) is so ubiquitous. If atheism is not what I believe, for the simple reason it’s not a thing, what does motivate me to keep this blog?
I’m not going to enter into my ethical beliefs here, as I have discussed them at length. What I want to outline here is something alluding to my world view regarding the physical reality.
I believe in being sceptical
This blog can often times be very repetitive. Many of my atheist readers and I have the repeated task of cutting grandiose claims down to meet their mediocre evidence. I believe this is the safest element of an epistemology. I’m not sure I believe in The Truth™; even some of our most basic concepts―like something being solid―is a subjective claim: it’s actually empty space and the feel of solidity comes from electromagnetic interactions between the surface of our skin and the object. All direct empiricism is “Middle World” interpretation. What I do believe is that we have claims based on evidence that reflect a much more modest truth. We can never be certain and The Truth™ will probably always evade us. And so I believe it is with the humility in accepting that I think we should proceed sceptically.
I believe in knowing how to know
Agreeing to be sceptical about everything is not the same as believing that everything is an illusion. The Truth™ may escape us, but what we experience and measure does reflect a much more modest truth. I’m repeating that because it is an important nuance. Our experiences tell us stories and we must always be mindful that those stories can be deceptive: we can be deceiving ourselves. Solidity is a prime example of this. However, when our experiences all lead to the same story, tell corroborating stories and are generally consistent we start to build up a modest truth, for all practical purposes (and all academic purposes for that matter).
There is always some story telling in trying to figure out what evidence means. Without some level of story telling or imagination no evidence will ever mean anything to us: a pebble falls to the ground; water vapour floats away; a car falls to the ground; an iPhone falls to the ground; a helium balloon floats away. Without some degree of story telling these would be unrelated points. But by joining these points with just the smallest story we can develop a generalised rule about things denser than air falling and things less dense than air floating. A little more story telling allows us to move beyond our generalised rules and into a hypothesis: denser things will fall through malleable mediums (liquids and gases) and less dense things will float on malleable mediums. This theory works in air and in water and was tested on the moon. That is the Theory of Gravity. A little more prodding made the theory a little more specific, with Newtons equations and the theory was then underpinned by descriptive laws. But it’s still not fully true: planes are denser than air (and here theories of aerodynamics come into play).
For us, in our day-to-day lives, and throughout most of the history of science this has been the method: one of observations leading to hypotheses and upon testing all the hypotheses we start to create and accept generalised rules (or laws); extrapolation of those discoveries become greater hypotheses and so the idea expands. However, in science today―physic in particular―a very different mechanism has been at the forefront of our thinking: maths. Maths in a very strict and logic-based set of rules that underpin the stories physicists can start to tell at the perimeters of their knowledge; it is less about observations and more about what the maths permits. Once a coherent mathematical model exists within the known context of science, then it is time to imagine how to observe that.
Black holes are one of my favourite examples of this. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity is a description of the relationship between mass and gravity (energy and spacetime to be precise, but here isn’t the time for that). It goes that increasing the mass of an object increases the related gravity. It mathematically followed that a body could reach a critical density where an object becomes physically overwhelmed by it’s related gravity that is collapses; this creates a lot of gravity focussed in a small area and thus becomes a blackhole (with gravity so strong that it sucks in all mass and energy, forever feeding itself). Blackholes are a mathematical prediction of Einstein’s Theory on Gravity. They were just a prediction, a hypothesis, until we knew to start looking for the evidence. (Notice the difference here: the “observation” started in a mathematical model, not in the conventional, empirical sense.) But we have now seen the gravitational lensing and massive gravitational spirals of blackholes.
The reason blackholes are my favourite is because there was another non-empirical hypothesis about blackholes: Einstein gave us an insight into their birth and Hawking gave us an insight into their death. Virtual particles are tiny bits of mass that condense out of quantum fields everywhere, and then annihilate with each other to nothing. They act as a pair. Hawking speculated, mathematically, that as virtual particles act everywhere then they must also be doing this at the event horizon of a blackhole. The exception being that as the two particles emerge, if one is sucked into the blackhole at the other is just far away enough to escape then that escaping particle is a little bit of mass lost from the blackhole. A completely mathematical and non-empirical prediction, and the speculated result is something called “Hawking Radiation”; blackholes emitting tiny virtual particles. But they have now been observed.
I am more concern with how someone comes to know a thing than the actual thing they know. If there is no sensible way by which something has been discovered, then there is no reason to believe that thing is sensible: a discovery is no more sensible than the method that underpins it.
Good reasons are more important than The Truth™
We need scepticism to motivate us to continue to look for good answers, and we need good methods to assure us what we may know has better odds than hearsay or forming sentences from a dictionary in a washing machine. However, we also need to recognise something about our methods: they define our knowledge. There are very unreliable methods of acquiring knowledge―guessing and intuition come to mind―that are sometimes right. That’s how people win the lottery. But if someone believes something for bad reasons, I am disinclined to believe them. Anyone who says the cure for a headache is to rub a cat on their head because it worked for their neighbour this one time is likely to see my scepticism motivate me to find a real answer, and not my confidence in their methods to assure me of their answer.
I often use the example of a Bronze-Age man entering a neighbouring village and ranting about the ability of some metals―but not bronze―to attract other metals. He can’t demonstrate the claim, as he can’t create the metals, and he can’t explain the theory because no one has sufficient understanding of the topics involved. (Even if the speaker had this knowledge, he would have no way to demonstrate the existence of the major players in the theory; atoms with electrons etc.) Although the man is correct, to believe him is wrong. There are no good reasons to believe him and the baseless blathering he would have been doing would be no difference from the village idiot ranting incoherently after finding some interesting mushrooms.
[UPDATE: There are better ways to describe ‘solidity’ as nonobjective. It’s not subjective per se, as there is a demonstrable difference between a solid and a gas. My point alludes more to the quality of being solid not actually meaning what we intuit. It is that discrepancy that more accurately highlights the lack of certainty in science and better illuminates the lack of immediate clarity: the philosophy is not as simple as the distinction between objective and subjective. I have not updated the actual body of the post; I want it to act as a record of my mistaken conjecture and response to the feedback from Steve (see comments).]