Just over a week ago reports with headlines like Big Bang’s Smoking Gun started to appear all across the Internet. Just yesterday the New York Times weighed in on the significance of the discovery, ranking it alongside the Higgs-Boson:
These gravitational waves are the long-sought markers for a theory called inflation, the force that put the bang in the Big Bang: an antigravitational swelling that began a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the cosmic clock started ticking. Scientists have long incorporated inflation into their standard model of the cosmos, but as with the existence of the Higgs, proving it had long been just a pipe dream.
There are already skeptics1, but I want to focus on an odd, impromptu interview with Andrei Dmitriyevich Linde and what it says about the relationship between science and faith. Linde is one of the physicists who first proposed the theory of inflation decades ago, and in the video Professor Chao-Lin Kuo surprises him at his home with initial results confirming that Linde has been right all along. Something Linde said really struck me:
If this is true, this is a moment of understanding of nature of such a magnitude that it just overwhelms and… let’s see. Let’s just hope that it is not a trick. I always live with this feeling “What if I am tricked? What if I believe into this just because it is beautiful? What if…?” Yes, so this is really helpful, to have evidence like that. It’s really, really helpful.2
Professor Linde’s question really struck me the first time I heard it. “What if I believe it just because it’s beautiful?” What that expresses to me is a much more nuanced and comprehensive understanding of human belief and faith than we are usually allowed to glimpse when the guardians of right and proper rationalism are busy trying to drive their wedges between religious faith and scientific evidence. Just so we’re clear: I’m not equivocating the two, nor am I in any way suggesting that this new discovery itself validates theism.
What I’m doing is just pointing out that belief is about more than just rationality and objective evidence. It’s about intuition and symmetry and beauty and value. I think it would be a terrible misrepresentation of Linde’s faith in his unverified theories to call it “wishful thinking,” or “blind belief,” although there are aspects of both wishing and blindness in it. Similarly, ugly dismissals of religious conviction using the same labels strike me as a fundamentally impoverished view of what it means to be a human being in a world of mystery and contradiction where questions always outnumber answers on any truly meaningful issue.
From where I’m standing, the kind of tentative, pioneering scientific faith that precedes (but dos not obviate) experimental validation is a close cousin of the kinds of thoughtful, humble religious conviction that have animated so many believers in so many traditions for thousands of years. Obviously we should never merely accept this kind of faith where there is the prospect of evidence at hand. But isn’t it just as clear that this kind of faith is intrinsically noble and important? Clearly there are important differences between religious and science inquiry, but this is one commonality: faith is the beginning and not the end of inquiry.
17 thoughts on “What If I Believe This Just Because It Is Beautiful?”
Linde’s theory doesn’t involve acceptance of the divine authority of a book that endorses genocide, sexism, ethnic discrimination, stoning children, sacrificing animals, etc., so there’s really no comparison to the kind of religious belief that’s most often the target of “ugly dismissals.”
So, are you telling me that when folks dismiss religion they are dismissing the kinds of religions that embrace genocide and animal sacrifice? Where do you find such religions today, Chris?
I see an awful lots of traditions that have reverence of the book you disparage, but strangely they seem to have found a way to embrace it without stoning children. Perhaps you’ve missed the point of the book in question, and the people (believers and non-believers) who have found beauty within it.
Comparing the leaps of faith required to believe most scientific theories vs most religious theories is comparing apples and Jupiter-sized apples. They are both spheres of mass, but that description clearly misses the point. Such comparisons are literally accurate, but tiresome and misleading.
I see no reason dismissals of anything needs to be ugly though (Chris).
What forms the frame of reference for this comparison? We’re talking about things for which, by definition, we do not have any direct, empirical evidence. So how do you place bounds on the relative probabilities of this class of propositions?
Linde had an abundance of evidence and a working theory which was confirmed by the latest discoveries. A typical religious belief, while socially helpful, has little evidence if any. Sometimes religious beliefs become stronger in the face of contradictory evidence. Any knowledge gap requiring a leap of faith is inherently a void, but to act like the widths of the gaps are identical is just silly.
The mass of Jupiter to an apple is about 10^28 to 1.
Seriously, though, we evaluate which leap of faith is shorter and call that one the more likely. Enumerate your assumptions and lay them end to end. I don’t know how to make the math much more accurate than that.
It’s fully possible to find beauty in (or even accept the Divine Authority™ of) a book that endorses genocide and stoning children without, for one’s own part, endorsing genocide and the stoning of children. But that doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea or even that it’s morally neutral and undeserving of “ugly dismissals.” Frankly, an unverified-but-beautiful cosmological theory just isn’t comparable to an unverified-but-beautiful religion that accepts the premise of the divine authority of an incredibly violent and morally backward book.
No, dismissals don’t need to be ugly. Then again, some things probably deserve an ugly dismissal. One of those things is Mein Kampf. Another of those things is the belief in the divine inspiration of a book that says, among other things, “you must destroy them [the Canaanites] totally. Make no treaty with them and show them no mercy”; “Do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them . . . as the Lord your God has commanded you”; “Kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man intimately”; “Everyone who would not seek the Lord, the God of Israel, was to be put to death, whether small or great, whether man or woman”; “Go, now, attack Amalek, and deal with him and all that he has under the ban. Do not spare him, but kill men and women, children and infants, oxen and sheep, camels and asses.”
Your characterization of religion is absurd. The world you live in is a very tiny place.
So that’s why my Canaanite friend never calls me back…
Chris: There’s plenty of Christian repudiation of verses like the ones you’ve quoted. Should we say ugly things about Democracy because the Greeks (and Americans) who first started it kept slaves?
Asking religious people to admit ugly verses were written by old dudes not God is a reasonable but unrealistic request. Better to focus on the current practice of religion, and how religious people are wildly more charitable, etc.
“You complain that Christianity teaches the divine authority of a text that endorses genocide? What an absurd concern! How dare you characterize all religion that way? (Because, of course, Christianity is all religion!) Enlarge your tiny world to make room for the beauty of genocidal texts!”
Well, I don’t know about wildly more charitable. Secular people tend to be politically progressive, and thus to have less faith in the power of private charity to solve social problems. They often view charity as a sort of palliative that may in fact detract from systemic solutions. Religious people are also more likely to support military spending, pre-emptive warfare, discrimination against women and gays, etc.—which, I would suggest, is not unrelated to their acceptance of the divine authority of the “ugly verses.”
The comparison to democracy isn’t entirely apt either, since democracy doesn’t accept the divine authority of pro-slavery documents. I mean, we do treat the Constitution as a sort of sacred text of American democracy, but we’ve got an amendment process for that, and it’s the amended text that’s sacred. I guess the Declaration of Independence is more comparable to the situation with the Bible, though it really isn’t used the same way. But you’re coming near to something significant here, which is that the semi-religious devotion to America, the Founding Fathers, and our national history can be at least as offensive and morally problematic as the Christian devotion to the Bible, and can have similarly violent consequences. I’m unpatriotically American in the same sense that I’m irreligiously religious: I want to keep the forms of our moral institutions, but to openly repudiate—and replace with secular alternatives—the evil portions of the mythologies on which the institutions have heretofore been based.
If secular people had that much faith in government and were as charitably giving as the religious, they’d volunteer to pay that much more in taxes. Who does that?
You are welcome to do that. Jefferson edited his bible when he cut out the parts of the New Testament he didn’t like. If you want other people to pay any attention to your new mythology, though, you need to start out from a less confrontational place. For someone who knows so much about history, you seem to know very little about people.
>>If secular people had that much faith in government and were as charitably giving as the religious, they’d volunteer to pay that much more in taxes. Who does that?
Pretty much all the secular people I know are willing to pay more in taxes if it means single-payer healthcare, etc.
>>If you want other people to pay any attention to your new mythology, though, you need to start out from a less confrontational place. For someone who knows so much about history, you seem to know very little about people.
Ha! I usually am much less confrontational, especially in person. I was probably in a sour mood when I picked this fight. I will say, though, that there’s something to be said for shock value and occasionally framing things in the starkest terms possible. It puts things in perspective.
If charitable donations depend on getting something in return, that’s not charity. That’s just a purchase.
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