Friday, 22 February 2008

Doubt is a strength, not a weakness

Karl Popper
I am just about to finish a bout of theism vs. atheism blog reading. You can find such debates ad nauseam all over the blogosphere. I don't know how you feel after having read such stuff. My impression is that such debates are a clash of two completely different modes of thought. It is a clash between those who claim to know the truth and those who claim to know what not (yet) has been falsified. This difference is fundamental. And I have the impression that most debaters are not aware of it.

My mode of thought is based on Karl Popper's critical rationalism. This view, in very brief, states that all explanations of the world, such as scientific or philosophic theories, only can be falsified and never can be proven to be true.

Doubt is not a weakness. Doubt is our strongest tool in gaining more knowledge about the world. Doubt is the motor of scientific progress. Without doubt, we still would believe that Earth is flat and roofed by a huge dome with holes in it that give view to the bright light of the Universe.

Doubt is the wind that separates the wheat from the chaff. And the wheat that remains is only an interim selection because a part of it may be blown away with the next gust of wind. With every gust of doubtful wind they survive, the remaining grains gain more value.

The quality of claims

In other words, the quality of any claim relies on the number of failed attempts to falsify it. The more such attempts it has survived, the more reliable it is. The claim that Earth is a sphere has survived many round trips and space flights. Thus, it is pretty reliable. But research has also shown that our planet is not exactly a sphere but only approximately so. This shows another strength of doubt: Theories can be refined and overhauled.

Evolution is another pretty good example. In bacteria, evolution can be observed as a fact. Some strains formerly killed by some antibiotics now survive because a resistance has evolved. This is a fact and cannot be disputed. The explanation - Darwinian evolution theory based on mutation and selection - is not a fact or truth but a hypothesis, a theory. It never can be "proven to be true", according to the rules of critical rationalism. But it has survived thousands of attempts to falsify it up to now. I conclude that evolution theory is quite a strong theory.

In comparison, the claims of theism are much weaker. They did not pass one single attempt of falsification because they are not falsifiable as a matter of principle. In my view, it is quite adventurous to build one's whole philosophy of life on a claim that is not falsifiable. In other words, on a weak claim.

Only one valid answer of theism

Theism apologetics can only claim critical rationalism not to be the appropriate way of looking at things. This ends the dispute. Theism can only be challenged by applying critical rationalism. If someone decides to step outside this frame of thought, all arguments become invalid and irrelevant. And this, I think, is what happens in the theism vs. atheism debates all the time.

Freethought is the absolute contrary to dogmatism. It is the freedom of everybody to think his or her own way. If theists reject the philosophical basis of science, it is their freedom. It is a valid answer of theists to state that they don't look at things the scientific way. This also means that there is no common ground for a dispute. And this in no way is a counter-argument against any scientific claim or theory.

Invalid answers of theism

A common mistake of theists is the refutation of claims that science has not made. For instance, they may "prove" that evolution theory is not "true". Yes, right, it is not a truth. It is a theory. It is open to doubts. And this, see above, is not a weakness but a strength of the theory.

Another misconception of theists is their view of gaps. Gaps in knowledge are seen as a weakness of science, but this is based on the false assumption that the goal of science is the absolute positive knowledge of all things. On the contrary, gaps are the free space where the tree of knowledge can grow. Gaps are the raw material of falsification and therefore a vital element of critical rationalism. See also my earlier remarks on the gap filling fallacy.

All invalid counter-arguments of theists have one feature in common: They do not accept the rules of the game. They leave the playground of critical rationalism. They fight science on a field where it never has been and never will be. It would be more helpful first to agree on the rules of the dispute, not starting until these have been settled. And I guess many disputes between theists and atheists never would have come to a start under this condition.

Photo credit: Amazon

1 comment:

felix said...

How often do you find yourself changing your mind. I found your site doing my own search on theism and atheism and it just seems odd to stumble across your mention of doing a search on theism and atheism. A Christian that claims to be an ex-Christian doesn't seem so odd. I've been using the terms thetic and non-thetic after Sartre, but theism and atheism as the two elements to be made into One somehow has more emotional oomph.

I've enjoyed reading your thoughts. I'll RSS..