This keeps coming up in my anthropology classes. Yes, I get that the point of anthropology is to be culturally relativistic and not pass value judgments on another culture. And this especially goes for religion/belief systems. Indeed, I and I'm sure most here have little problem seeing one god as having no more or less credibility than another god. But to put science in the same category as "My invisible friend in the sky did it because that's what my culture has taught me to believe?"


Taken to its logical extreme, believing something because the scientific evidence supports it is still a belief. I'm with Rene Descartes on this one: Math (no matter how you cut it 1+1=2) and oneself (I think therefore I am) are the only things in this universe we can prove with absolute certainty. And even then, many a philosopher would love to tear either of those down.


Another fact: Science deals with the empirical, the sensory, the rational. In short, how we tangibly observe, interpret, and relate to the universe around us. And science is the first to admit that our senses and our brains have their limitations. We only see within a certain color spectrum. Our brains are hardwired to interpret data in particular ways. Someone has a stroke and suddenly they see/sense/perceive/interpret data in a wildly different (and not necessarily 'incorrect') way than the rest of us. For all we know there are 4th, 5th, and 6th dimensions that we puny 3 dimensional beings simply don't 'get.' There are most definitely animals and laws of physics and infinite diapers full of space shit that we have yet to discover/measure/invent a gadget to detect yet.


Combining our admittedly limited senses with the fact that we haven't yet scientifically discovered absolutely everything there is to discover, means that sure; even though it looks like a duck, sounds like a duck, feels like a duck, and 10,000 other observers all see/hear/feel generally the same about the thing, it could be a 3-inch purple giraffe as the vision you had while on peyote told you it is. But it's most likely a duck. The "belief" of I and the 10,000 other empirical observers is not "just a belief" with the implication of being "just as likely to be true as the peyote vision." One of these things is a belief. One is a belief based on overwhelming empirical evidence and peer review which is how we and most every other animal tangibly experiences, lives, and dies in this world.


That also gets into the very existential definition of "reality." It seems I and the "science is just another belief system" crowd are not on the same page when it comes to the definition of reality. I'm defining it as the tangible. That which happens around us whether we are there or not, whether we opt to believe it or not (reality-def1). The woo crowd is defining it as perception (reality-def2). Both definitions are correct; it's just a matter of context when we're talking about them.


E.g.; a shaman has a dream, that becomes part of his experience and ergo his reality and his perception of the world around him (reality-def2). But if his dream is that the volcano he lives on isn't going to erupt today while the geologists say it is, reality-def1 will happen one way or another, regardless of who is right or wrong. Either the volcano goes off today or it does not. Either shrodinger's cat is alive or dead (reality-def1); it is not both because your reality-def2 says one thing and mine says another.


Have I made any sense here?


I guess my question is how to explain and approach the "science is just another belief system" argument. Yes, it all comes down to belief, whether in your imaginary friend or in the overwhelming empirical evidence. And yes, empirical evidence can be wrong or distorted or misinterpreted.


The best illustrator I've come up with so far is to illustrate the countless times we all use science versus religion every day. When you get up in the morning and put your feet on the floor, how do you know/trust the floor is there? Observable, testable evidence. When you brush your teeth, why do you opt for toothpaste and not antifreeze? Observable, testable evidence. When you are driving down the road, do you look at the traffic light to see what color it is (science) or do you close your eyes and ask god (religion)? If you and I need to cross a busy street and I opt for science (look both ways) while you opt for religion (close your eyes and ears and ask god if it's safe to cross), which one of us do you think is more likely to live to see the other side?


Anyone have any better ways to explain/illustrate that while science is 'belief' in the literal, extreme sense, it is not "just a belief" in the I-closed-my-eyes-and-asked-my-invisible-friend sense?

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That's the best test of a 'belief'.  What has it done for us?  Religions make us stagnant and hold the entire freaking race back.  Science has given us ... well, damned near everything around us.
I don't "believe" in science but am inclined to trust it, while remaining skeptical because I know that it (and I) have limitations. I tend to shy away from the word believe in more serious matters in order to avoid misunderstandings.

Forgive the verbosity of some of my ramblings, but these three articles should arm you with some strong foundations for why science isn't just another belief:

This one, vs. post-modernism is most directly related to your opponents' position of extreme relativism.

This one, on pragmatism and prediction tackles the question of how we can know anything at all, and why science is really the only game in town.

This one, vs. faith, though less directly relevant, still provides good background information on the difference between belief and knowledge, as well as the prime importance of evidence. Also, some good counterarguments to typical responses you are likely to get when you dare (gasp!) to put forth the idea that though we may never know everything, we already definitely do know some things.

I like the illustrations in your next-to-last paragraph, thanks for writing that. I didn't follow the middle entirely. My brain can only do so much philosophically before crapping out on me. I do need a way to talk to other people about this stuff eventually, and I'm glad the internet has allowed me to learn from people who have thought through this stuff for longer than I have already. I am absolutely on the "rely on science" team but it's never occurred to me to express it like that. I agree that I don't want to use "I believe" for things that are, for all practical purposes, facts; but of course there are different levels of beliefs and they don't all equate to "just as likely" if we lump them in some category called "belief."

Hi Lyra - Thank you in turn for your phrasing "things that are, for all practical purposes, facts."


The argument being proposed is similar to Descartes' assertion that nothing can be proven with absolute certainty, as all of our tools of measure have potential flaws. Our eyesight can deceive us, we could be hallucinating or otherwise mistaken by what we see. 6+ billion people on the planet could all agree that a tree is a tree based on empirical observation and our past and present knowledge of plant life, while the guru on a magic mushroom trip asserts his spiritual vision tells him it is not a tree but a purple giraffe. Technically, he could be right while the other 6+ billion people are collectively wrong. 


But, Descartes points out, one of those assessments has a far greater chance of being correct than the other.


The argument being made (or at least implied) by the professor and others is that these two assessments have equal chance of being correct. That "facts" are an illusion.


So Lyra, I think you put it well. There are things in this world that are agreed upon by an overwhelming majority of us as "facts" based on observable, testable, empirical evidence.


And before someone smugly points out that "The world being flat was once accepted as fact," it was not a fact based on observable, testable, empirical evidence. It was a fact based on some guru on a magic mushroom trip, with the support of leaders threatening torture and death to anyone who stated otherwise.

Thanks for the clarification. Is this your anthropology professor who is making that argument? I can certainly understanding "putting on a hat" of cultural relativism, if you will, in order to try to understand different cultures, but I've never met anyone who had a truly relativistic belief system to the point of not agreeing on any "facts."

Anthropology of Religion professor and most of the students in the class.


I definitely get the need for cultural relativism but in this case, it just doesn't apply. Religion and belief systems by definition include the supernatural and/or belief in the sense of faith by revelation as opposed to empirical experience.


By definition, supernatural can not exist. If something exists, if it is real, it is natural, not supernatural.


Anyway, in this context science and religion are comparing apples and oranges. One does not equate to the other.


Oh, they are out there. In certain circles, they are the majority.

I'll never forget talking to one girl and she was so dismissive of science/reason/evidence that I asked her flat out, "So, you're saying that you don't know anything at all, not even a little bit?" And she said, "No, of course not!"

Inwardly I just wanted to say, "So why are you even participating in this conversation if you have nothing to offer?" Probably should have just said it out loud.

Ask these questions to identify people like this: How do you know that? Can we know anything at all? Do you know anything at all?

You'd be surprised at how many people are basically epistemological nihilists (at least, they pretend to be). They are one of my pet peeves.

Well, perhaps I have met these people, then. My problem is when someone makes no sense, my head hurts and all I want is to get out of the conversation.


Jo, I cannot imagine how this person manages to grade student work with such an attitude!

Science is not a belief system, it is a technique for determining the quality of an idea. Science is a tool, an instrument.


When I need to nail two boards together, I think a hammer is a great tool. When I need to know how valid and reliable a piece of information is, I think science is the best tool.


Is my confidence in the practical application of a hammer a belief system?


"I believe in science" really means, "I believe science is the best tool for discerning truth (or as close as we can get to truth)"

Exactly, Edward Teach!  And you said it better than I could have. 


When people ask me what I believe, I tell them that I don't really "believe" anything but that sometimes I am convinced that things are a certain way because the evidence is overwhelming and intellectually honest.  As you described, I use the scientific method as a tool.  I don't consider it infallible and I don't worship it.  Also, I don't expect that those who don't use that same tool are going to hell.

This may not be strictly on topic, but I recently checked out Unweaving the Rainbow and I wanted to share this passage where he is laying into "purveyors of cultural relativism":

"There are, of course, genuine philosophical difficulties. Is a truth just a so-far-unfalsified hypothesis?...Is anything ultimately true? On the other hand, no philosopher has any trouble using the language of truth when falsely accused of a crime, or when suspecting his wife of adultery...And there are lots of scientific truths where what we claim is only that they are true in the same everyday sense. If I tell you that humans and chimpanzees share a common ancestor, you may doubt the truth of my statement and search (in vain) for evidence that it is false. But we both know what it would mean for it to be true, and what it would mean for it to be false....Yes, there are philosophical difficulties about truth, but we can get a long way before we have to worry about them."
- Dawkins, 1998, p. 21


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