Let’s start with a proposition, and see where it leads us. The proposition, which I’m pretty sure would be subscribed to, and passionately, by most adherents of most of the world’s religions, is this: There are important facts about the Universe that are not subject to verification using the methods of science.
The question that immediately arises is, how would you know?
This is not a trivial question. The essence of the scientific method is that various independent experimenters can perform repeatable experiments that lead to similar or identical observations. The scientists then attempt to come up with theories about the Universe that explain the observed data. Having come up with a theory, they perform further testing with the aim of validating or disproving the theory. A theory can never be finally proven to be factual, but as the body of evidence mounts, the theory starts lookin’ pretty darn good.
Observation tells us, for instance, that the Earth travels around the Sun in an orbit that is roughly elliptical. Theory explains that this is due to the force of the Sun’s gravitational field, minor perturbations being caused by the gravitation of Jupiter and so forth. This theory cannot, in any final sense, be proven. The Earth might in fact be attached to the Sun by a very strong, very thin piece of string. The theory of gravitation might be wrong. But the overwhelming preponderance of evidence, gathered over the course of centuries by thousands of independent observers, suggests that the theory is correct. For one thing, it allows us to make predictions about the future and then observe that the predictions come true.
The assertion that there are facts (such as, perhaps, the existence of “God” or of a human “soul”) that cannot be investigated rationally is a summary rejection of the scientific method. It is a claim that certain aspects of reality cannot be subjected to scientific investigation, or that, if these aspects are investigated scientifically, the results will be erroneous.
Religionists are forced into this rather awkward assertion because, of course, their creeds set forth purported “facts” about the Universe for which no scientific basis has ever been found.
To return to my question: How would you know of the existence (or adequately judge the importance) of anything that cannot be investigated scientifically? Where might your supposed knowledge of this fact or facts come from?
There are two sources, I think. The first is, a lot of people believe what they’re told, especially when they’re told by someone who is older than they are and has a higher social status. There are profound evolutionary reasons why this mechanism exists, but that’s beside the point at the moment. The point is, the tendency to believe what you’re told has nothing to do with the actual factual status of what you’re told. Even if it’s wrong and harmful, you will be predisposed to believe it. This has been abundantly demonstrated scientifically — for instance in a memorable experiment at Stanford in which authority figures urged the actual test subjects to apply painful electrical shocks to supposed test subjects.
The second source is subjective personal experience. You might, for example, hear a very loud voice that seems to be coming from the center of a burning bush. (The subject of auditory and visual hallucinations has, again, been investigated quite thoroughly. We’re pretty sure they originate in the brain, not in the burning bush.) Or you might simply have a warm, happy feeling when you contemplate the idea that the Universe is, in spite of any appearances to the contrary, being directed in its every detail by a wise, benevolent entity who has your personal best interest constantly at heart.
Unfortunately, the fact that you have a warm, happy feeling about something is no guarantee that it’s true. Anyone who has ever discovered, belatedly, that their spouse has been cheating on them for years will be happy to explain this to you.
Even scientists use these two sources of input. And they’re sometimes led far astray! A supposed scientific authority might tell you, for instance, that heavier-than-air flying machines violate the known laws of physics. But what happens, as the scientific process unfolds, is that such statements are probed and tested by independent observers. Before very long, the authority figure will be discredited.
In religion, the authority figure cannot be discredited, because there is no rational basis on which his or her claims can be tested and evaluated. Other than hypocrisy, I suppose, but hypocrisy tends to be discounted. If you find out that your pastor has been sleeping with your daughter, you might be disinclined to believe anything he tells you in the future — but quite likely, your religious faith will not be shaken an iota. You’ll see the hypocrisy as evidence of the pastor’s human failings, not of the incorrectness of the doctrines he set forth.
Simple common sense should tell us (though it often doesn’t) that any statement coming from an authority figure ought to be tested and evaluated, not blindly accepted. Authority figures are sometimes wrong! The sheer variety of religious beliefs in the world today should tell us that they can’t all be correct. Clearly, most religious authorities are wrong, because they contradict one another.
How are we to determine which of them (if any) is correct, if we can’t do it by testing what they tell us in a rational, scientific manner?
Our only resource, when faced with this problem, would seem to be subjective personal experience. We believe the one that we feel we ought to believe, or that we prefer to believe, or that we enjoy believing.
Unfortunately, subjective personal experience is often wrong too. Any number of scientific studies have shown this. People fail to observe important facts. They misinterpret the things they do observe. They’re easily swayed by authority figures to ignore or misinterpret their own experience.
The importance of the scientific method is precisely that it removes subjective personal experience from the process of investigation. If five well-trained scientists perform an identical experiment, and if four of them get one result while the fifth gets a different result, we’re entitled to suspect that the fifth scientist made some mistakes in setting up the experiment. And if that fifth scientist loudly proclaims that his result is just as correct as the other four results, because his personal subjective experience assures him that it’s correct, we laugh at him. And rightly so.
The trouble with using subjective personal experience as a yardstick with which to understand the Universe is twofold. First, you don’t know nearly enough about the Universe to make sound judgments, and never will. Second, you’re far too likely to be delusional. The probability is very high that your personal thought processes, in the absence of any validation from independent observers, are giving you bad information.
If you’re religious, of course, you can probably round up 10,000 people who will claim to be having the same subjective personal experience that you are. You will then claim that this fact validates your experience. But it doesn’t, and for two reasons. First, all of your 10,000 believers have been listening to the same authority figures, so their experience has been skewed. Second, I can just as easily line up 10,000 people whose subjective personal experience is radically at odds with yours.
What, in that case, have we proved? Is the nature of reality something we’re going to vote on? I don’t think so. If you can line up ten million people who believe passionately that the Sun revolves around the Earth, that doesn’t make it so.
The way that we discover the nature of the Universe is by investigating it, not by indulging in personal intuitions about it. Intuition is a vital process — I’m not proposing that we ignore it. But intuition without investigation is just blather. It’s pixies dancing on the lawn.
And if the only people you’re willing to look to for validation of your subjective personal beliefs are those who agree with you, you’re a member of a cult. It may be a very large, powerful cult, but it’s a cult. Cults do not admit of dissenting beliefs, because dissent would destroy the power of the cult leaders. Worse, it would leave cult members feeling confused and insecure. Above all, we must prevent feelings of confusion and insecurity. So let’s lock the doors and turn off the phone, shall we? Then we can comfortably believe whatever we like, and never have to deal with reality.