When I was in college (multiple lifetimes ago) I took a class where we studied the nature of belief and disbelief. It was actually a class about logic and situational analysis, but (despite being raised Lutheran) I attended a Jesuit college, so the emphasis on belief versus disbelief was well aligned with their gestalt.

I loved the class (for many reasons, not all of them scholastic). The topic of what we believe — or disbelieve — has fascinated me ever since. It’s a key branch of philosophy under the umbrella of epistemology, the theory of knowledge.

Because our beliefs affect everything from science to politics to personal relations.

We frequently associate “belief” mostly with our religious stance, but actually, it applies to almost everything. A famous example asks how we “know” the Sun will rise tomorrow. Looked at closely, in fact we don’t know, we believe. The question, really, is how confident we can be in that belief.

As I write this, it’s cloudy with a light rain. Last night turned into today, and there is light, but I haven’t seen the Sun today (and probably won’t). What confidence can I have the Sun did rise this morning? Perhaps the light comes from a different source.

For one, my weather app tells me sunrise was at 7:14 AM today. Can I believe my weather app? Given how bad it is predicting the weather, perhaps that would be a mistake. But it’s a data point. Perhaps there are others that can confirm or deny it.

In my three score and mumble years, I’ve personally witnessed the Sun rise on many occasions. Police officers and lawyers know that witnesses aren’t the most reliable, both in what they (think they) saw and in how they remember and report it. However, that applies to witnesses of a single event, often one they weren’t expecting and were surprised by. Not the best conditions for accurate perceiving or reporting.

Not just witnessed — I have photographic evidence!

My repeated observation the Sun rises on schedule carries more weight than a surprised witness of an unexpected single event. Additionally, everyone I ask reports the same thing. If they’re awake, and the sky isn’t too cloudy, they see the Sun rise. We seem to be getting somewhere.

[Unless it’s some form of shared hallucination. It seems much more likely our shared experience of the Sun rising does reflect the reality, though. It’s a simpler explanation. Plus, we have tons of photographic evidence. So, we’ll put a pin in the hallucination idea. (If we live in a virtual reality, everything we experience is a hallucination. But can we justify that idea? Can we believe it? Not really. See this post.)]


So far, we’ve depended on personal reporting, ours and others. A much stronger foundation for our beliefs about the Sun involves the physical realities established through scientific observation.

If universally shared human experience isn’t enough (though its universality carries considerable weight), our understanding of the Solar system — refined over thousands of years — gives us a solid foundation for our belief — our understanding — that the Sun rises every morning. We can be assured of this, even in the deepest darkest cave.

This scientific understanding is why my weather app can tell me what time the Sun rises or sets on any day of the year. It’s just doing the math.

§ §

Physical reality, established through methodical repeated observation (in other words, science) is one of our most powerful tools for what we can believe is true. Over time, science converges on accurate theories that explain our reality.

Sadly, though, modern science has become polluted with the notion that “post-empirical science” is anything other than science fiction. Incredible as it seems, professional scientists, who really ought to know better, have advocated this notion.

It’s increasingly apparent that certain sectors of science have badly lost their way. I posted early this year about things I don’t believe. Most of them are “scientific” (ha!) ideas taken seriously by many in the field. (SUSY, string theory, and various multiverse theories among them).

The great scientist Richard Feynman (1918-1988) was a strong advocate for the idea that experimental results are the only arbiter of scientific truth. Theories provide avenues for exploration, but only experimental results should be taken seriously. He wrote:

The test of all knowledge is experiment. Experiment is the sole judge of scientific “truth”.

Which is just one of his many statements on the topic. (See his Wikiquote page and search for all the occurrences of the word “experiment”.)

Note that my repeated observations are a form of scientific evidence (because they are consistent and repeatable). The universality of the experience strengthens it enormously (a key aspect of science being the ability to repeat an experiment and get the same result).

Why has science gone so badly astray? Partly because it got stalled in certain areas. It has stalled in theoretical physics, which hasn’t added anything new to our (experimentally confirmed) understanding in decades. We’re a little stuck when it comes to cosmology, too.

§ §

Science has also gone astray because it’s lost touch with physical reality, but scientists need to justify their grants and papers. This disconnect also plagues modern society. We are often willing to accept an idea because it appeals to us on some level even when that idea doesn’t bear close examination. This is why some scientists are so enamored with science fiction ideas — those ideas appeal to them. They want to believe in them.

Scientists usually have a logically grounded theory, even some good math, to support their science fiction. This is why some of these theories persist. SUSY is a good example. If it were true (something that’s increasingly unlikely), it would wrap up certain aspects of particle physics very neatly. Very neatly indeed.

But there’s no experimental shred of sign of it. By now experiment has eliminated all the likely forms of SUSY, but believers keep moving the goalposts. Didn’t find it here? Well, maybe it’s over there. Unfortunately, proving something false is a difficult trick. (The canonical example being the theory there are no black swans. It can only be proven by examining every swan past, present, and future. An impossible task.)

If scientists, who really ought to know better (but are only human), are prone to accepting unphysical ideas, it’s understandable those without training in logic and analysis easily fall prey to false ideas. Those who deny the value of science (or even just critical thinking) are especially prone to this.


A particularly egregious example is the travesty of “pizzagate” and related conspiracy theories. This, and other utter nonsense, was promulgated by the alt- and far-right — bat-poop bonkers organizations that regularly trade in blatant and evil lies. The result of an utter inability to deal with physical reality and facts.

Another nasty example of people believing utter bullshit is the belief that 9/11 was some sort of inside job or “false flag” operation. It’s nasty because it’s a lie and because it dishonors those who died on that day. Long ago I made the mistake of getting into an online argument with some of those folks. Bonhoeffer was right, there’s just no talking to stupid. It’s a lost cause. Yet any logical analysis based on physical reality pretty clearly demolishes the belief. (See thesethreeposts.)

Earth Pizza!

Benign (and to me hilarious) examples are those who believe (some quite seriously) the Earth is flat. We’ve known that isn’t true, that the Earth is round, since ancient times.

[Here’s an experiment: Ask someone about the point of Christopher Columbus’s journey. You may be surprised how many say it was to prove the Earth was round. Nope. That was a known fact. The first world globe was made in 1492 — the same year Columbus sailed. The goal was finding a shortcut to India by going around the Earth.]

And yet people seriously believe the Earth is flat. Why? Because it looks flat to them, and they refuse to accept the mountain (nay, mountain range) of physical evidence refuting the idea. A classic example of believing what you wish rather than the (easily accessible) facts.

Equally hilarious to me are those who believe the Moon landing was faked. The modern space age seems to have clarified most people’s thinking on this false belief, and I haven’t heard anyone assert it (seriously) in a long time.

[There is a great joke that, yes, in fact the Moon landing was faked, but they hired Stanley Kubrick to film it, and he insisted that they shoot it on location.]

Climate change is yet another false social belief. I wrote above that it was raining. In February. In Minnesota! We’ve had temps approaching, if not above, 40° (Fahrenheit) for over a week. In February. In Minnesota! Climate change is self-evidently true. In fact, it’s rare to hear any but the most deluded claim climate change isn’t happening. The claim that persists is that it wasn’t our fault. But, again, the facts are pretty clear.

And let’s be honest here. Many of these lies are promulgated for political reasons. It’s questionable whether the promulgators actually believe it. Their followers seem to, but I suspect more cynicism lies with those originating those lies. (And as I’ve said before, when it comes to blatant lies, the far-right bought up nearly all the shares quite some time ago.)

§ §

Now, what about religion? Is that a false belief? Well, firstly, see above about the difficulty of proving a negative. The fact is that there is no scientific evidence one way or the other. Religion, and any metaphysical view, is a matter of personal belief. Such views are called metaphysical because they are beyond the physical, beyond science. They are strictly matters of faith.

Religious beliefs are somewhat akin to worldview beliefs. A conservative view is just as valid as a progressive view. And vice versa. In fact, a healthy society requires both. Conservatives provide foundation; progressives provide progress. We need both, but we need both to be healthy, rational, and sane. Sadly, that’s not what we have.

FWIW, I choose to believe in God, although I agree with the Jewish notion that it’s pointless to try to figure out something so far above our paygrade. One simply accepts the idea of something greater than oneself. And there is always Pascal’s Wager. I have a choice between a universe where everything just happened and all this matter, time, and space means nothing, or I can choose to believe in a universe with meaning. I prefer the latter (until shown otherwise).

§ §

So how do we figure out what we can believe in? In epistemology there is the notion of justified true belief. To claim to know something, it has to be true, one has to believe it is true, and that belief must be justified.

[These criteria, incidentally, are why religious beliefs are beliefs, not objective truths. Generally speaking, metaphysical beliefs fail to be justified true beliefs and can only be considered beliefs, not truths.]

As the examples above illustrate, the belief part is easy. So easy that it often goes astray when we believe something we want to believe (or which comes from an “authority” we mistakenly take seriously). Beliefs that accord with our dispositions should always be viewed with suspicion.

The truth part is trickier, and so is the justified part (the latter still being something of a debate among philosophers). However, modern life offers a wealth of resources for determining what is factual, what is physically real. Wikipedia, at least with the physical sciences and other undisputed facts, is an excellent resource (despite what some claim).

The best resource is a good education. One that teaches clear and critical thinking. One that emphasizes the importance of physical reality and logic. Indeed, logic alone is a powerful tool, but it is susceptible to garbage in, garbage out. Logic only addresses the correctness of the argument; it says nothing about the premises of that argument. But if the premises are true, and the logic valid, then the conclusion is inescapable.

Which once again brings me to the brilliant ten-word summary of modern culture due to Leon Wieseltier (see this post for details):

Too much digital; not enough critical thinking; more physical reality.

He said that back in 2014, and it has only gotten more and more true over time. Each of those three clauses speaks to a vital defect in our culture. We are losing ourselves in misbeliefs and bullshit.

§ §

Why did I attend a Jesuit college? Of all the universities in the Los Angeles area (where I lived at the time), only LMU allowed full access to the students of the television and film program. Most universities had active broadcast stations and needed to keep the equipment at broadcast standards. Which meant hands off to any but the most advanced students.

The Jesuits are the scientists and philosophers of Catholicism, so it wasn’t as confining as a Catholic college might imply. (I once shared a joint with priest! It was the 1970s.)

Stay rational and curious, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

5 responses to “Disbelief

  • Wyrd Smythe

    When I wrote the first draft of this post last Tuesday, it was cloudy and rainy (and in the low 40s). Today it’s also cloudy, but the temp is 27° but without rain. Just in case you were checking the Minnesota weather and wondered why I was talking about rain.

    But still, 27° degrees isn’t normal February weather. In Minnesota. Or at least it wasn’t. These days it is.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    My waking thought, as I lay in bed deciding whether to linger or get up, was:

    At the end of a day, we “call it a day.” At the end of an evening, we “call it a night.”

    But what do we say after a night of sleep? We don’t “call it a night” — that’s for the end of an evening before we sleep. And we don’t “call it a sleep.” We don’t seem to have a cute phrase for “calling” it a good night’s sleep.

    Language is funny.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Oops! I neglected to mention the one thing we can actually know — that we exist. The famous line by Descartes, “Cogito Ergo Sum”“I think, therefore I am.” It’s the one fact we don’t need to believe. The only truth of our existence. Everything else comes to us through our senses and is suspect.

    It was the topic of my second blog post here.

    Of course, if we ascribe to realism (and I certainly do, see this much later post), then we take certain consistent universal beliefs as facts we can “know”. Like that the Sun rises every morning even when we can’t see it (like again this morning).

    [In opposition to philosophical realism is philosophical idealism, another form of human silliness. See this post for more.]

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Damn, but WordPress software sucks balls. I forgot to the preventative action of wrapping every paragraph in <P> tags, and, sure enough, this fucking miserable excuse of a software munged all the text into one big paragraph.

    This is a bug I reported to them years ago. Fucking incompetents. Can’t get the simplest of text processing right. And they still emit illegal CSV if you export the list of page hits.

    I’m pretty sure this, and most other incompetent software these days, comes from the 1980s or so when “being a computer programmer” took on the same allure of being a money-making profession as being a lawyer or doctor. So, people more interested in money than the profession flocked to it. Not just anyone has what it takes to not completely suck at programming. Skill is required, obviously, but so is some measure of talent and aptitude for it.

    I’m soooooo sick and tired of shitty software!

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