Why is Evidence Important?

When discussing spiritualism, philosophy or religion it doesn’t take long to encounter the apparent impasse of “but concept X might be right”, where the concept is not falsifiable. Most of us with an empirical bent are content to ditch these ideas, because the lacking or counter evidence is often compelling enough. But I want to look at what happens when we don’t, and why a belief contrary to evidence is a no-win risk. To take a belief in something contrary to (or without) evidence is the colloquial (and less misleading) definition of the word ‘faith’. The “risk” we’re talking about can also be hugely variable; it could be as little as some of our time or as much as the welfare of a nation. Either way, I’m going to assume there is something lost by believing in a falsehood, as in reality there nearly always is.

So. We have our belief that is neither provable nor disprovable, as all persistent faiths necessarily are. We have no substantial supporting evidence for this faith, perhaps even evidence against it, but ultimately it is not disprovable. It might be true, the adherents stubbornly insist, and What (as a Liberty University student once fatefully asked Richard Dawkins) if you’re wrong?

Once again, Probability, that great nemesis of the human brain, rears its head. If we are to say “look, let’s just forget evidence, this might be real”, we’re basically asking for acceptance based on probability alone. And we’re forced to consider something that on the face of it seems absurd in the extreme: what is the probability of an unverifiable, improvable thing? You certainly can’t assign them 50/50 probability (that was Pascal’s failing), because apart from anything else any one unsupported theory is only as likely as any other and many of them are mutually exclusive: none of the monotheistic gods could co-exist, for example. There are a near-infinite multitude of possible unprovable ideas. As near to infinite as it is possible to get.

One example is the popular logical argument against the “just maybe” mentality, let’s call him the Invisible Demon as I did in the article about the Wager. I tell you that he sits outside your window and may set fire to your house any night he wishes, but you can’t see, touch or hear him in any way. You just have to throw water out of your window every night to keep him from doing so.

No sane person would respond to this claim by making sure they remember to throw water out the window every night, even though this requires very little effort. The reason is because we do not need to acknowledge unsubstantiated claims on possibility alone; I am clearly just making it up. But this is technically the same as any other non-empirical belief. It’s only when culture permits people to be indoctrinated into a belief system that we have smart, intelligent individuals finding it hard to discern fantasy from truth. In other words, religion gets its credibility solely from its size and age*.

But we will grant that, technically, it may be possible. The real crux is this: to the human mind, possible is still probable. And the brain is good at turning probable into feasible into certainty. But let’s look at probability a little more closely to make sense of what we’re actually talking about when we say something is possible.

If I am at rest, it would appear as though no part of me is moving. However, if you were to look at me at the atomic level, you’d see my atoms moving around frantically, in random directions (this movement is what we mean by Heat energy). The quantum forces governing these movements are random, meaning there is a possibility (staggeringly insignificant, but technically still a possibility) that all the atoms could decide to randomly move in unison. If this continued to freakishly go on for long enough, I could find myself inexplicably a few centimetres from where I just was with utterly no explanation apparent.

We don’t need to be concerned about this happening in practice. Why? Because the chance is so small. Not unlikely. Not rare. For all practical purposes, impossible. That might seem like a simplification. But I think to say so is framing it misleadingly. You see, to say the odds against something with such low probability are colossal is an understatement. Our language fails to convey numbers beyond the human realm of experience, which is why mathematicians use analogies. A googol is a very big number: 1 with a hundred zeros after it (compared with a million’s pathetic six). So big, you’d think you don’t really need anything bigger, surely? Well a Googolplex is 10 to the power of a googol. You know how quickly 10x10x10x… adds into an insanely large number? Well imagine doing that a googol number of times. A googolplex is such a large number that it is vastly bigger than the number of square nanometres in the entire known universe.

“A googolplex to one” is the kind of odds where you would need, in terms of averages, maybe trillions of universes to come and go before you would see a single occurrence. Our universe is 13.8 billion years old… and we’d need to sit through trillions of them. Look, we can still say this concept is possible, because yes… technically it is. But that lumbers impossibility with a useless definition, while we have a problem understanding improbability of this magnitude.

In all, it seems we live in a universe where nothing is impossible. And what better could we hope for than that?

(*) - This is why recent upstart charlatans like Scientology have to invent so much gimmicky nonsense in order to attract followers.

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