Rational and irrational beliefs

Some time ago, I wrote a post wondering if the Pope was an atheist. Of course, I do not know the Pope personally and he has never made a public statement to that effect. It would not really be a good career move on his part.

My point was that the more one thought seriously about god and studied religious texts, the more likely that it was that the whole idea of there being a god and heaven would be seen to be preposterous. All the logical fallacies and lack of evidence would become transparent. Hence I argued that it was amongst clergy and theologians that one was most likely to find atheists because those people are not stupid and they do study religion in depth. The higher one went in the hierarchy, the more intellectual were the clergy and theologians and so, given that logic, I argued that the Pope was a prime candidate for atheism.

Some commenters to that post did not find my reasoning compelling, arguing that such religious people either truly believed what they did or had devised various forms of subconscious rationalizations to protect their beliefs from challenges. The comments were very stimulating and well worth reading.

But I thought about this topic again when discussing the question of what would constitute definite proof of an afterlife. Just as for that case, the only proof that I can think of that one can have for the non-existence of god is the absence of evidence for god. Unlike the famous assertion made by Donald Rumsfeld when he was flailing around trying to explain away the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”, absence of evidence for god or the afterlife or the paranormal is evidence for their absence. (If anyone, especially religious believers, can suggest an alternative that they would consider compelling proof for the non-existence of god, I would be very interested in hearing it.)

As far as I can see, convincing proof for the existence of god would have to be something along the lines of the convincing proof I outlined earlier concerning the afterlife: god would have to appear in public to a random group of people, provide tangible proof of existence, and re-appear at a designated time and place that would allow for skeptics to be present. In short, it would have to be similar to the encounter that King Arthur and his knights have with god in the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), right after the song in Camelot in the following clip.

It is clear that we have never had anything close to this level of proof. All we have are the claims of ancient texts of highly questionable authenticity, and the personal, uncorroborated testimony of individuals that they have ‘felt’ some presence in their lives that they think is god. Of course, just as in the case of the afterlife, such testimonies have many natural explanations, from dreams to hallucinations to misunderstandings to lying.

The willingness of people to believe in things for which there is no evidence is not always irrational. For example, take the case of extraterrestrial life or space aliens. A fairly plausible reason can be postulated why they might exist even in the absence of any convincing proof that they do. The universe is a big place that has been around for a long time. The Earth is a tiny speck and reliably recorded human history has only been around for a few thousand years. So it is possible that aliens can live in distant parts of the universe unknown to us or that they have even visited Earth before the evolution of humans. So belief in extra-terrestrial life is not completely irrational.

There are still some difficulties to be overcome. If aliens came a long time ago, surely they would have left some tangible markers of their presence, like we have left stuff recording the visit to the Moon? It is possible to answer that objection by saying that if they came a long time ago, then any clues they left behind could have easily been swallowed up by vast geological changes that have occurred over time. It may be that the movement of continental plates due to drift or the advance of glaciers has resulted in the evidence being taken deep underground and lost to us or that earthquakes and floods and tidal waves have removed their alien artifacts from the surface of the Earth

So a plausible reasons exist as to why space aliens could exist somewhere in the cosmos, and even visited us at some time even though we have not seen them. Although no evidence exists for that ever having happened, it is not irrational to not exclude that possibility.

What is irrational, however, is the belief that aliens are still around and mysteriously come and go in UFOs with flashing lights. The idea that an advanced civilization that is capable of interstellar travel has nothing better to do with its expertise than tease us by playing hide and seek is preposterous.

Most people, because of the similar lack of evidence, do not believe in things like dragons and unicorns, and do not even think of demanding more proof of their non-existence. Why is this? One obvious reason is that with large land animals like dragons, there are not many places where they can be unobserved for long and we assume that these animals are not smart enough to hide their existence from us even if they wanted to do so. After all, for a species to survive over a long period it has to have a large enough number to avoid going extinct. For so many of them to exist and remain unobserved would imply the existence of a fairly large unknown habitat. So the long-term absence of sightings of such animals implies non-existence and it would be irrational to believe in them and most people would accept that. It would not be irrational to postulate the existence of some forms of deep sea life that we are not aware of, because that region of the Earth is still relatively unexplored.

Next: What about belief in god?

POST SCRIPT: Evolution of creationism

British comedian Robin Ince captures the essential difference between intelligent design creationism and science.


  1. Anonymous says

    The last few posts seem to be laying the foundation for a disturbing argument. It seems that you want to argue that the lack of evidence of existence proves non-existence.

    I am troubled when scientists venture outside the world of data and into the philosophical arena. This is where you are headed.

    In my opinion, when a scientist is asked, ‘In your scientific opinion, does God exist?’ The answer should always be, ‘I don’t know. I don’t have any data on the subject.’

    Science has a weakness. The weakness is the inability to examine data (either directly or indirectly) that does not exist.

    The scientific method has done science well.

    From physics.ucr.edu

    1. Observe some aspect of the universe.
    2. Invent a tentative description, called a hypothesis, that is consistent with what you have observed.
    3. Use the hypothesis to make predictions.
    4. Test those predictions by experiments or further observations and modify the hypothesis in the light of your results.
    5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 until there are no discrepancies between theory and experiment and/or observation.

    Back to my thoughts.

    It is the 4th step that gives science problems with exploring issues like God, the afterlife, and the paranormal. You can’t conduct an experiment to see if God exists. You can’t observe the non-existence of an afterlife.

    A clever scientist might chronicle historic events that are attributed to God. These could include the creation, the flood, the resurrection of Lazarus, etc. Then the scientific method could be applied to each event. Creation could be shown to be the result of a big bang, the great flood can be shown to have never occurred, That scientist might find 1000 such events and he might find a scientific explanation for each of them. Yet, that says nothing about the existence of God. He would be wise to say, ‘I don’t know if God exists but I am very sure that the creation story and the story of the great flood are myths.

    I think it wise if scientists continue to comment on ideas for which data exists. Let’s let the philosophers pick up the conversation in the absence of data.

    p.s. In the previous post you say, “Since there is a 50-50 chance of guessing right for each diary, the probability of getting at least 16 out of 20 right is 0.006 or 6 in 1,000 or about one chance in 167. This is unlikely but not that rare.”

    Odd since most peer-reviewed journals accept 0.05 as significant.

  2. Anonymous says

    “What is irrational, however, is the belief that aliens are still around and mysteriously come and go in UFOs with flashing lights. The idea that an advanced civilization that is capable of interstellar travel has nothing better to do with its expertise than tease us by playing hide and seek is preposterous.”

    Is it really preposterous? Suppose there is some advanced civilzation that arose elsewhere in the universe. They would most likely be unspeakablely different than we are in culture (or lack thereof) and every other aspect. To say that teasing us is preposterous is to assume human-likeness, which I think is even more perposterous.

    It is that same fallacy that is often applied to religion. It is easy to call the idea of God absurd based upon review of so-called ‘divine occurences. But to do so would be to judge God by human standard that God would, by definition, be beyond.

  3. George Bohichik says

    I*m unfortunately an irregular visitor to this site so I apologize if these links are redundant:

    There are (possibly) some interesting insights on the issue of persistance of belief in the irrational to be gained from evolutionary psychology, particularly the work of Scott Atran:

    The NYT Sunday Magazine article (the first one listed in the link above) is a good intro, but his book- In Gods We Trust- develops his argument that we are wired by evolution to believe in things we can*t see or explain (and which, in fact, don*t exist.)

    He was also a featured panalist in the Beyond Belief conference
    where he discussed his claims:


    where his was one of the sole voices that addressed the chauvinism of some of the participants WRT anti-muslem stereotypes. For example, according to Atran, adherents of Islam
    are the most tolerant of other religions compared to other world religions and to atheists who are the least tolerant (for obvious reasons- to this atheist at least.)

    His work on suicide bombers is also valuble and free of the usual cant.

    I*d be interested in any thoughts on his work from readers
    of this blog.

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