The Null Belief

Human beings have an inborn intolerance for uncertainty. When faced with an unfamiliar claim one feels thrust into a dilemma. “Do I believe or disbelieve?” It’s an itch that must be scratched by leaning this way or that, no matter how little information one has on the subject.

The honest reaction would be to admit one’s own ignorance — to oneself as well as others. It’s perfectly ok to say, “I really don’t know either way. I’ll think about it, do some research, and get back to you.” But somehow it just feels better to have an opinion, any opinion, no matter how unfounded, than to have none. In absence of knowledge and evidence our brains will even go so far as to manufacture the experience of certainty to tide us over.

You can blame our evolution for this compulsion to believe. If a member of your clan gets eaten by a bear, you’re going to form a belief that bears are dangerous. But do you really know anything concrete about the next bear that crosses your path? Maybe bears are gentle, but the first one you saw happened to be rabid and crazed. Maybe there’s another animal that looks very much like a bear but has no interest in you as dinner (e.g. a panda). Maybe bears are avatars of the gods who dole out rewards or punishment based on a person’s character — the tribe member was just an evil person and deserved his fate.

Even though any of these things could be true, this wait-and-see mentality would have put you in an early grave. Those who jumped to conclusions about bears and who were overcautious were more likely to survive encounters with them.

Observe your average neighborhood bird or squirrel. They’re scared of everything. A noise or movement too close will send them in a mad dash even if the source is harmless or benevolent. And this strategy has served them extremely well over the millennia despite how many meals it’s cost them. The odds remain in their favor because the penalty for being wrong is far greater than the reward for being right.

It’s a very strange quirk of evolution that those who perceive reality most accurately are often at a disadvantage. Clear-sightedness and survival have surprisingly little to do with each other. As intelligent as we are it’s natural to assume that our window to the world is spotless, but the truth is that a dash of delusion is not only useful but necessary for a sentient species to come this far. In light of this, many of humanity’s problems suddenly make more sense.

In civilized society we need to temper our inclination to believe or disbelieve by reflex because it often does more harm than good. We need to cultivate a tolerance for uncertainty.

This is accomplished by recognizing that the belief dilemma offers a third choice which is frequently more appropriate: no belief at all.

There isn’t a belief in history that has influenced humanity more than belief or disbelief in a deity, so I’ll use it as an example to illustrate what I mean. The term “atheist” can have a number meanings, but in the minds of the general public to be atheist is to have a disbelief in God — in other words, to believe that a deity does not exist. This particular flavor of atheism (sometimes referred to as “strong atheism”) comes under attack for being an untenable position because proving a negative is so problematic, especially when dealing with universals. I could verify that there are currently no elephants in my bedroom easily enough, but to verify that a deity doesn’t exist anywhere within or outside of the universe simply isn’t possible. One would have to be extremely exact about the definitions of “deity” and “exist” to even hope to pull it off. Sometimes disbelief in the supernatural is as fundamentally flawed as belief in it, as it turns out.

And this is where the null belief comes in. What belief and disbelief have in common is that they are both positive positions; each position says something about the universe. Disbelief is just belief of a different sort. “God exists” and “God doesn’t exist” are both statements that need to be justified by the claimant. But the null position requires no defense. To have no belief is to refrain from embracing a claim in the first place. It’s the position of having no position.

Someone with a null belief about God (sometimes referred to as “weak atheism”) remains in the state he was in before the notion of a deity ever entered his mind. He isn’t “on the fence” because that arbitrarily presupposes that there are only two choices to consider and that those two choices have a roughly equal chance of being true. He is simply open to evidence of God (or Samulayo, or Lei Gong, or Gnowee, or Ba’al, or Sedna, or an entity not yet conceived of) and lives in comfortable uncertainty about the subject until evidence shows up, if ever. To form any kind of belief in the meantime, including disbelief, is just unnecessary.

Skeptics sometimes seem uncomfortable with the null position, even though it’s the most honest (and the most scientifically sound) position to hold when faced with arguments for the paranormal. For many, to reserve judgement about a claim that they think is most likely bogus just feels too passive, wishy-washy, and soft. They fear that it ultimately encourages the people who are intent on deceiving themselves and others — that it gives those people an inch from which they will surely take a mile. So they resort to the sort of kneejerk disbelief that garners skeptics their reputation as curmudgeonly naysayers.

I disagree with this attitude, and I think it arises in part from the biological urge to pick a side. Lacking belief doesn’t require you to be the least bit soft on disseminators of bunk. As I’ve said before, you can reveal errors in someone’s chain of reasoning without ever making claims about the truth of his conclusions. If you stick to his ideas rather than the reality those ideas describe then you’re free of the burden of providing evidence to the contrary, which, in the case of ideas lacking evidence either way, you just won’t have. You’re merely pointing out the fact that he lacks it too.

It also doesn’t leave you more susceptible to falling prey to a baseless claim, as some skeptics might suggest. Being open but unconvinced isn’t wishy-washy. With every claim I’m presented with I can keep replying indefinitely, “Show me why I should believe this.” If the evidence is solid and the argument follows, I’ll become convinced; if not, I won’t. Starting from a position of disbelief won’t change that. If anything, disbelief without reason acts as a cognitive barrier. It makes it harder to accept a genuine claim that may come along because I’ll already have a subtle bias against it.

By jumping from a null position to disbelief about a claim that I’ve seen collapse under scrutiny a hundred times (assuming it lacks evidence to the contrary) I gain nothing except relief from the itch in my brain that compels me to make a choice. But belief and disbelief aren’t dichotomous opposites. There is only belief and null belief. Convinced and unconvinced.

With every sasquatch sighting that turns out to be a hoax, we don’t gain certainty that sasquatches don’t exist. But it doesn’t matter. Someone who has no belief about sasquatches lives effectively the same life as someone who’s convinced that they don’t exist. Neither will believe in sasquatches until he sees one, but the former has a position that’s more intellectually honest and more easily defended.

It’s a tragedy that the English language is so ambiguous on this matter. When I say, “I don’t believe in ghosts,” what do I mean? Do I disbelieve? Or lack belief?

Try in the future — at least in your own mind — to respond instead with, “I have no belief about that,” and see how it feels. In my case it alleviated a nagging epistemological tension that I hadn’t been able to shake otherwise.

If you ever manage to get used to it, uncertainty is an excellent place to be.

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