Wednesday, September 7, 2011


The other night I had a near-Storm experience, when the topic - over wine - ended up for a short while about evolution and then the words "but science is also just a belief, really" were uttered. I did object to it, but I think my objection was lost/ignored/misheard/ruled out by generally loud conversation that quickly spread like wildfire to some other topic.

But I'm bothered by the statement, not because it's untrue, but because semantics force it to be true. Yes - science is also something that one "believes" in, much like some deity, the fairy godmother or Santa Claus. So the statement, taken literally, is true. There are serious differences between the two kinds of belief that are sadly jumbled up into one concept, but the English vocabulary does not allow for them to be easily expressed. Neither, by the way, does Swedish. Which leads me to wonder if there's a language that actually has separate words for the following two states of the brain:

  • Accepting a statement about reality because it seems likely, or feels right, or makes sense, compared to:
  • Accepting a statement about reality because it has been proven true.

I have more to say about these two sentences in a little bit. First, I want to also address another beef with the word "belief" - that it doesn't separate between "likely" and "virtually certain." Anything anyone deems just past the line of 50% probability gets the tag "belief." All the way up to 99.99%. And, for reasons having to do with social conventions and politeness in discussion, quite a chunk of the one-hundred-percenters, too. For instance:

  • "I believe it will rain tomorrow."
  • "I believe my wife is at work."
  • "I believe my team will win the championship."
  • "I believe this shirt is too small for me."
  • "I believe evolution is true."
  • "I believe there is a fly in my soup."

These are not six equally likely propositions. Yet there is no good way of stating the difference, because we're stuck with the word "believe." Sure, you could try throwing into the mix such phrases as "I hold it to be true that..." or "It seems likely to me that..." or "Surely, it's the case that..." but those are usually awkward. You could also go right ahead and just state matter-of-factly that "Evolution is a fact." Yes, it is. But that actually says something different than sentence number five above. It takes the speaker out of the picture, and I'm a firm believer (see?!) in speaking in first-person as often as I can because I want to talk about how I perceive the world and what I believe, my values, and so on. Maybe this is too fine a point, maybe I'm splitting hairs. But I can't help look at those two sentences and feel a big difference about what they say and what kind of conversation will take place after they're stated.

Maybe it's because of inflation. Maybe the word "belief" was originally used in the sense of "holding something to be true" but was gradually devalued as people used it for less and less certain statements about the world. There are lots of words that have had this happen to them, my favorite being the Swedish word "ganska" which originally meant "certainly" and now means "fairly." We slowly went from being "ganska" sure of what the word meant, to only "ganska" sure about it.

So about the word that is missing, the word that denotes something I hold to be a fact about the world because evidence dictates it versus things I've been told or think I have noticed - what about that? How do we separate between "I believe a full moon gives me headache" and "I believe Jupiter is the largest planet in our solar system?" A minimum of one of those are - for most people - on authority. And only one of them is true. But both of them can correctly be summed up as being things people believe, thus implying a hugely unfair (to Jupiter) similarity in degree of truth. It pisses me off. Can I start saying that I "objectively believe" something?

  • I objectively believe in evolution.
  • It seems likely that it'll rain tomorrow.
  • I'm probably over-obsessing about this topic.
  • I'm almost certain that very few people will read this.

Oh, whatever. Watch this instead:


Alex said...

Something I've wondered about, and could probably Google, but figured I would ask your opinion on. Is Creationism vs. Evolution as big an issue in Sweden, or abroad in general, as it is in the US?

Fredrik Paulsson: said...

No, nowhere close. Obviously there are creationists here too, but they're in a tiny minority and the idea that creationism should be taught in schools is just simply never even aired. There was a small hubbub awhile back about a quasi-famous science teacher that turned out to be a Jehovas Witness and didn't believe in evolution, but he didn't teach biology (more math/physics) and while his views were considered misguided, it didn't really affect his teaching so most people let it slip.

The only places I know creationism to be big is the US and then places like Saudi Arabia and other theocracies. The UK, for instance, has Darwin on their money (!) so that says something about how they - in general - feel about it.

Tildy said...

Hmmja, I'm not as sure as you are, Fredrik. I think it's possible that there are more "semi-creationists" in Sweden than we think, and that we don't notice them because Swedes aren't as vocal about it. I think this could apply to a lot of Europe, where I'd say many fewer people make an active choice about religion than in America -- that is, EITHER way. There are fewer die-hard, certain, born-again Christians, but also fewer die-hard atheists. Most people seem to go around vaguely believing in evolution because they learned about it in school, but also vaguely believing that there's "probably something out there" and believing in ghosts, homeopathy, fate, and a whole bunch of other things simply because they've never particularly given it much thought since the age of 5. When a discussion comes up on such topics, they fidget nervously in their seats because they don't feel they have much to add or because they're not comfortable placing all their bets on God not existing. A survey of university students when I was studying at LiU showed that many didn't see what the big deal would be about teaching intelligent design in schools and, despite the fact that most of them had heard of ID for the first time when asked by the survey taker, they thought it sounded like a good idea to add that perspective into school curriculum.

Then of course you have they whole attitude of how baptizing your children and getting married in a church is normal and important even to atheists, because it's "cultural tradition." But that's a bit beside the point of this discussion.

So I think most people here seem complacently agnostic, and while not actively and loudly believing in fairy tales, they're scarily susceptible...