Tuesday, August 03, 2010

On Challenging Assumptions

In a previous post, I claimed that I had recently had a religious experience. Since the post was about science and atheism, it drew all kinds of challenges. I appreciate those challenges, because it has forced me to clarify my thoughts. Here's where I have ended up.

Assumption: Everything in the world can be explained through science - repeatable, measurable, definable rules and laws.

Event: Something very unusual happens to me which has religious significance.

Explanation: I understand the brain and psychology fairly well as well as chemistry, physics and mathematics. I can come up with an explanation for the event using these tools. However, my explanation is based on a sequence of highly unlikely occurrences and since probabilities are multiplicative, the overall probability that this event should have taken place is infinitesimally small.

Quandary: I am left with relying on my assumption that science can explain all things to accept my wildly improbable explanation for the event. I dismiss a miraculous explanation for the event only because my assumption tells me to. Essentially, an otherwise perfectly valid data point is discarded because it conflicts with my assumption.

I have good friends who are sceintists who have had similar experiences. We can also dispose of theirs through equally improbable explanations. More data points are discarded only because our assumption tells us to. Over time, in the aggregate, the number of such discarded data points quickly grows large. How many data points do you discard before you begin to wonder if the assumption was incorrect?


tim eisele said...

You bring up a real problem not just for theological questions, but for any field where events happen rarely, briefly, and on their own schedule so that it is difficult to set up a controlled observation. Astronomers are also driven crazy by that sort of thing.

While it is far from perfect, the best solution is not to discard the data. Instead, record it as best you can, save the information, and try to work out how other people can make the observation better next time. There may not be an answer to exactly what is going on now, or in your lifetime, or maybe ever, but otherwise there is no hope of ever sorting things out.

Also, one note about estimating probabilities: a trap that most people (including me) often fall into is assuming that the probabilities are actually independent, when in fact the occurrence of one step makes the following step, which would normally be rather unlikely, become probable.

ligneus said...

I'd almost go as far as to say that ordinary common sense [which many atheists and scientists think they have in abundance but in fact don't quite 'get'] would tell you the assumption is not only wrong, not to mention arrogant, but counter productive.

K T Cat said...

Tim, in events confined to the brain, the probabilities are most certainly not independent. I understand about the dangers of estimating probabilities, but you just have to accept that risk. If you get bitten by a shark, the probability of that happening was not as low as you think, it's just that you didn't know the location of the shark nor its state of mind when it attacked.

K T Cat said...

ligneus, my foray into asking the question about atheism and science was partially to uncover the logical constructs that lead most scientists to be atheists. Arrogance was a huge part of the explanation. It went something like this:

"You claim you had a religious experience. Describe it to me and I will determine if it was or not. I am smarter and wiser than you and will be better able to determine if it was indeed the work of the divine."

It's an attempt to intimidate, insult and mock the person who experienced the event. The correct response is, "Bite me. I don't need you to explain anything."