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Monday, February 25, 2013

The Basis of Belief

"Some things have to be believed to be seen."

That quote has been variously attributed to Ralph Hodgson, Madeline L'Engle and Abraham Lincoln. Maybe they all said it, it's not that original. In fact, it's the basis of almost everything we do on a daily basis.

Going back to the conversation about Thomas and how the evidence helped him to believe, we have to assume that it was his belief that helped him to see the evidence. There were many other people who saw Jesus resurrected and decided that it wasn't him.

But let's come back to that.

In 1982 an Australian scientist named Barry Marshall developed the hypothesis that stomach ulcers were caused, not by stress and spicy food, but by a bacterium. The scientific community ignored him, ridiculed him, and flat-out wouldn't believe him. The conventional wisdom was that stomach acid was too harsh an environment for bacteria to live in. Marshall persisted, but no one would believe him until, at his wits' end, he drank down a petri dish of the suspect bacteria. Within a few days he developed the ulcer.

This was proof that his hypothesis was right. It was in 1985.

Yet for decades the public and the scientific community alike persisted in believing that stress and spicy food caused ulcers. Finally, in 2005, Marshall's work was recognized and he was awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine.

It was only because he believed in his hypothesis that he saw a bacterium as the cause of ulcers instead of stress. Everyone else in the scientific community saw the same evidence yet believed something different. In the end, Marshall was shown to be right, but proof wasn't enough to convince the world. His unyielding belief was an indispensable part of the process.

Evidence can't exist without belief. Or rather, I should say that evidence isn't perceived as such without belief. It might be a bacterium, a sub-atomic particle, karma, or the resurrection of Jesus, whatever it is, unless you want to believe it, any evidence can be dismissed. And, if you're predisposed to believe it, anything can be construed as evidence.

That puts us in this dangerous middle-ground where we can't have any epistemic certainty. That is, we can't know for sure that we know anything. Since what we believe informs what we do with evidence and what we do with evidence informs what we believe, there's no beginning nor end to the cycle. Descartes' Archimedian point is quicksand. It's the chicken and the egg.

The basis of belief, then, is the certainty that we cannot have any certainty. Once we accept that everything we perceive is filtered through the lens of our belief, then we can start figuring out how good our beliefs are and how good our evidence is.

What have you seen because you believed in it?

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