I believe that belief is a transitory and transitional state between ignorance and knowledge. But it is critical to our species, because it is essential to our survival and progress, and it is also the potential seed of our destruction. When belief is an inference from the best available evidence and syntheses, it engenders one of the human mind’s most precious products, intuition, which in turn leads to further inquiry and advancement toward the next stage of knowledge. But when it is absolute, simplistic, and prejudiced, belief obstructs progress and engenders intolerance and certitude, leading to 9/11, the Iraq war, and worse.
I believe that there are two kinds of people, those who believe in some form or other of magic, the supernatural, and those who do not. Unfortunately, the former are still the majority of our species, usually adherents to a religion. I believe that it is impossible to possess a substantive overview of what science has so far taught us about Nature and the Universe; of the origins and histories of religions; and of human experience and history, and yet believe in magic. There is no valid evidence for it, and all verifiable evidence is consistent with its nonexistence. Supernatural beliefs arise either from ignorance, or from psychological trauma such as childhood indoctrination and the unacceptability of individual death. Religions are (at best) invented by people and cultures in their own self-images, to resolve practical psychological and societal issues with the authority of absolutism. Thus their continual conflicts with experience and reality can be rationalized, ignored, or suppressed. At worst, religions are designed or applied by individuals or groups to control and even abuse others.
There is much that we do not yet know about Nature and the Universe; that is the daily business of science. However, what we as a species don’t yet know is insignificant to our culture, in comparison with the remarkable things our species does know, but the vast majority of its members do not. I believe that most of what most people believe is false. How many of our species know that on February 23, 1987, billions of neutrinos from a supernova in the Large Magellanic Cloud flew through each of their bodies at the speed of light? Yet our species had predicted such an event in advance, and managed to detect 19 of them! For even longer, we have known that most of the atoms in our bodies were synthesized in generations of stars and supernovae that existed before the Sun. Comparable developments occur continually on a timescale of less than a decade, e.g., the identification of cosmic gamma-ray bursts and the discovery of re-acceleration of the expanding Universe. Or how many know that all life on Earth is based on the same 14 amino acids and right-handed sugars, and that the genes of humans and chimpanzees are 99% identical? If most people understood such amazing facts, which are emerging from all of the sciences, there would be little interest in Intelligent Design, which is no more than a crutch for the ignorance and preconceived beliefs of its proponents, the latest pathetic manifestation of the god of the gaps, and a model for the surrender and defeat of intellectual progress toward truth.
And so I believe that the basic problem of human survival is one of replacement of false belief by knowledge, i.e., education and research, in which we should therefore be investing the bulk of our resources, instead of in weapons with which to attack other cultures that are mired in different but equally pernicious beliefs from our own, as we have done since the origin of our species, but shall not for much longer, either way.
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