Reasons for Belief, part 2

Say you meet a person who insists that there are herds of unicorns living on a planet orbiting Tau Ceti. He’s very certain of this fact — so certain that he can’t fathom why you would have a hard time accepting it. After all, he says, Tau Ceti is a star of interest to the SETI project. It may harbor planets like ours and life may be flourishing there. There’re no indicators that the star would be hostile to unicorns. Why the hesitancy to believe him? Is the idea really so farfetched? Do you know something about Tau Ceti that he doesn’t?

For starters, the burden of proof lies squarely on this person’s shoulders. You aren’t on the defensive here; it isn’t your responsibility to disprove that there are unicorns on Tau Ceti. His attempts to slowly shift the burden onto you — a tactic that people making claims they can’t support often fall back on — shouldn’t be yielded to. When considering all the random, nonsensical statements you could possibly pull out of thin air right now, like “Genghis Khan was a Martian,” it becomes obvious that statements aren’t automatically true until proven false. Unless he can demonstrate to you why you should become a believer, the conversation is over before it began.

But let’s ignore the burden of proof for a minute and pretend that you now have a genuine dilemma: to believe or not to believe.

Fortunately, you don’t have to know a single thing about Tau Ceti or about unicorns to decide whether or not his claim has merit. Expertise in astronomy and unicorn physiology aren’t required, and arguing about them is actually the long road toward making your determination. All you have to do is analyze his chain of reasoning.

“So you’ve traveled to Tau Ceti before?” you might ask him. It’s a valid question; no one would be more justified in making this claim (especially so confidently) than someone who’s been there. Unsurprisingly, he replies that he hasn’t.

“Then you’ve read the reports of xenobiologists who’ve returned from an expedition there?” Admittedly I haven’t browsed the latest biology journals, but it’s probably safe to say his answer to this will also be, “No.”

“Then you’ve been observing the surface of the planet by telescope?” Since astronomers haven’t even been able to discern whether Tau Ceti has planets, again, a “no” is the likely response.

As you keep drilling down to uncover his reasoning for this belief, you may find that it isn’t at all compelling. Maybe he stumbled onto a website where “secrets NASA has been hiding are revealed!” Maybe he had a psychic vision of life under Tau Ceti. Maybe he was just told it was true by someone he trusted. The point is, if his chain of reasoning turns out to be inadequate then you know it would be inappropriate to adopt his belief without more evidence. You don’t have to counter his argument with facts about Tau Ceti and unicorns because his argument is insubstantial in the first place.

On pages 171-3 of a book that everyone interested in the supernatural should read right away, The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan does a much better job of describing such a scenario than I. An excerpt can also be found online: The Dragon in My Garage.

The line that stands out for me is: “Now, what’s the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all? If there’s no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists?” In other words, of what value is a completely arbitrary belief? What distinguishes having a belief that possesses no real content from having no belief at all?

The average day-to-day claim you’ll hear in New Age circles won’t be quite so outlandish as these two, but it can be addressed the same way. This approach helps you quickly weed out the claims that have little to no basis — if their proponents don’t even know why they believe them, why should you join in?

We may be astonished someday to discover that there are unicorns on Tau Ceti and dragons in our garages. My goal here isn’t to assert that there aren’t; technically this claim would be equally baseless. But without evidence or reasoning, we do ourselves a great disservice to adopt any belief whatsoever about these things — even if they ultimately do exist, as counterintuitive as that might sometimes seem.

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