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the chaplain

I suspect that religion continues to be pervasive because it does guarantee certainty. At first glance, one may think that a certain world would be a more attractive one in which to live. That's not true, however, because the only way certainty can exist is if all conditions are static, never changing, never growing. Change and growth are the factors that introduce uncertainty into the world and they are also the factors that make life worth living.

Jeff Hebert

The classic take on this of course is Asimov's "The Relativity of Wrong". As he so eloquently puts it:

My answer to him was, "John, when people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.


Even if you are living in the matrix, that's still the world you have to deal with.


Another excellent example from Asimov's essay was along the lines of:

John and Jill are asked by their teacher to spell the word "sugar". Jill spells "shugger". John spells "qwzdresx". They are both wrong, but surely Jill is less wrong than John?

A postmodernist response to that would be either strongly negative or entirely meaningless.


My ears are burning. :)

Even if we disregard everything you said about the self-correcting nature of science, Greta - and I certainly wouldn't, it's an important truth well put - but even if we did, that still wouldn't help the religious believers. In fact, it'd leave them far worse off than before.

I say this because, as we all know, there's a vast number of incompatible religions and belief systems out there. If there's no way to decide between them, no evidence or test that can settle the question, then all that's left is to close your eyes and take a blind leap, and hope against hope that out of the millions of false religions out there, you'll somehow land on the one true one and escape condemnation. It shouldn't need pointing out what a desperate and vain hope that would be.

That's why religious believers, far from disdaining science, should welcome it. It's the only thing that might ever tell us what the real truth is, including the truth about their doctrines. That so many of them choose to deny its power, I think, says a lot about their confidence in their own beliefs.

Donna Gore

The number of things that "COULD be true" is infinite. This is the thing that pushed me from an agnostic to an atheist. At one time I thought, well, maybe there is a god, there could be one. I thought about gods, vampires, fairies, werewolves, and all of the other supernatural creatures I could believe in if I so choose. And it seems to me there is about equal evidence for any one of them. It's inconsistent to say, "I don't believe in ghosts, fairies, etc... they are not real. But god. . . this ONE type of supernatural creature . . . well, yeah this one is REAL." There is just as much "evidence" for the existence of vampires as there is for the existence of gods. So, in order to be consistent, and NOT be a hypocrite - if I accept the possibility of god(s) then I must also accept the possibility of all those other creatures - ghosts, leprechauns, etc. And I just wasn't willing to go there.

Alice in Wonderland

One of the things I like about math is that it, uniquely, has truths that we can be 100% certain about. Even if it turns out we're living in the Matrix, there are still infinitely many prime numbers!

Felicia Gilljam

Thanks for a(nother) good post.

Whenever I encounter someone who clings to the fact that we cannot actually prove or disprove anything (except in maths and logic) as a crutch to their faith, whether it be in invisible friends or that the world doesn't actually exist outside their own minds, I happily concede this point and tell them I came to the same conclusion in my early teens. Then - just like I did in my early teens - I move on to question the utility of this claim. What is the point to saying we can't be sure we even exist? Does it aid our understanding of the world? Does it help us make our lives better? My opinion is that it most definitely does not. The assumption of science, however - that of methodological naturalism - does. Science can only work from the assumption that there actually is a world that is possible to investigate with our puny human brains. And so far, well, it's worked pretty damn well!


As always, well said. Can I be 100% certain about anything? No. But not being 100% certain that jumping off a building will hurt doesn't mean I want to do it.

A person professing an unwillingness to change their position on less than complete certainty is cordially invited to position themselves on the motorway and decide if an oncoming lorry is justification enough.


I've been a statistician for a couple of decades now (now I feel old).

I think it definitely affects my feelings about uncertainty.

I like being able to figure out that "extraordinary" coincidences are rarely very extraordinary at all. I like being able to debunk stories in the media - it gives me more of a sense of control of my own life; I can spend my angst on problems that matter, rather than non-problems.

I like the fact that you can learn things in spite of uncertainty, by dealing with randomness properly.

Statistical/probabilistic thinking doesn't remove uncertainty, but it lets you think about it, measure it and deal with it, instead of shrugging your shoulders or running screaming for someone to take away all the big bad randomness.

I'm kind of surprised that there are statisticians that can believe in any kind of interventionist God - they're strongly opposed ways of trying to understand the world (one of which kind of works when you do it right, and one of which only works if you fool yourself). But they're there all the same. It's weird. I guess it's the same doublethink we see everywhere. On the other hand, it seems like there are also a lot of skeptics, atheists and agnostics - and deists, I suppose - among statisticians, so maybe some of it does go in somehow.


Funny thing. With just the change of a few words, this (very good) text could be about the climate issue ...

Big Art

Define God! If your God is some ancient Person living beyond the Universe, I don't know if there is such a person. It has never contacted me. Usually such a person is described as having a wide array of super powers including super benificents. All the suffering I see and experience in this world proves no such a person exists. There are other definitions of God that are interesting, I like the end product of Universal evolution, but I have no way of knowing that such a definition is correct. In all of this I donot claim a 100% knowledge so it seems your thesis has a problem.

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