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Muddled Thinking

Entry 1471, on 2012-12-04 at 12:35:56 (Rating 3, Skepticism)

Anyone who reads this blog will know I am a skeptic. I don't mean a skeptic as in a nihilist or a denier, I mean a real skeptic: someone who is dedicated to discovering the truth, or the closest we can get to the truth, while understanding that everything is still ultimately open to question. But clearly this attitude isn't as common as we would like, even amongst intelligent and knowledgable people.

I discussed some issues related to skepticism today with a working scientist, an obviously intelligent person, who nevertheless had some bizarre and naive opinions on various topics.

I got the impression this person was a bit doubtful about the Apollo space program for example. Maybe she was one of those who genuinely think the Moon landings were hoaxed or maybe she was just using that as an example of something which could easily be untrue even though traditional wisdom was that it was a fact. The problem with many of these discussions is that it can be difficult to get your opponent to commit to a particular view so the theory you are trying to refute is constantly changing.

A similar thing occurred when we discussed religion. She claimed the Bible was the best source of true historical fact about the ancient world. I know this is a common claim made by believers and it is totally unsupported. There are references in the Bible to historical facts but there's a lot which is totally unsupported as well. But this claim is very common and obviously the people that make it have either never been corrected or choose to ignore that correction.

Anyway I took an important story from the Bible and asked what historical evidence there was for it. I chose Exodus because that is a well known and important story. What evidence is there that Exodus is true? Absolutely none. There is no accepted evidence supporting the events in Egypt or the crossing of the Red Sea, or the wandering in the desert. We can be almost certain that it simply didn't happen.

So how can the Bible be considered an important historical document when one of its most significant stories isn't true? And that's not the only one either, there are many Biblical accounts which are claimed to be historical records yet are totally unsupported by the evidence. And it's not just that the evidence is lacking and might be found in the future. Many people have looked desperately for evidence to support the Bible and have failed. Instead they have found evidence which contradicts it. So the more we look the less reliable the Bible is seen to be.

It's interesting what lead to the claim of the Bible's historicity too. We were discussing morality and she asserted that people need something to guide them. I said I found that problematic because what relevance does an old book written by bronze age desert nomads have to morality thousands of years later? That was when she claimed the Bible should be taken seriously because it is an accurate historical account. Even if that was true it doesn't mean it contains good morality but it fails on both counts because most of it isn't accurate anyway!

She also mentioned another well known false claim that believers often use. That was the old story that the weight of the soul has been measured because a person's weight was measured as they died and their soul exited the body. Well that just isn't true. When that experiment is performed it shows nothing. That doesn't mean there is no soul of course, just that if there is one it either weighs nothing (that makes sense) or doesn't exit the body as expected. But while this alleged experiment doesn't disprove there is a soul it certainly can't be used in support of the idea!

I found it quite bizarre that someone with an advanced degree in science could think in such an illogical and muddled way but there are plenty of other examples of this happening and I have already mentioned a few of them here in this blog.

Many people would say that it doesn't really matter how people think outside of their area of expertise but I disagree. If truth is important - and I think it is - then it's up to our intellectual leaders to demonstrate as much leadership as they can. They shouldn't support an old book of myths as a source of morality, they shouldn't repeat old and tired canards which reinforce superstition, and they should be skeptical of contentious claims but only to an extent which is reasonable: the time for skepticism over the Moon landings is over!

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Comment 1 (3386) by Anonymous on 2012-12-04 at 15:35:14:

We can almost be certain that it simply didn't happen. So how can--------- when one of its most
significant stories isn't true. Almost be certain equals not true??????

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Comment 2 (3387) by OJB on 2012-12-05 at 12:21:11:

Making an absolute statement like something definitely isn't true is rarely technically correct. We can never be 100% sure of anything, especially involving history. But having to say over and over that something is "99% certain to be untrue" or "almost certainly untrue" or "untrue according to all the best evidence" becomes a bit tedious, so I use the single word "untrue" as a shorter form.

I think this is fair, just to make the text more readable, when I have already pointed out that there is always a small element of doubt.

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Comment 3 (3388) by Anonymous on 2012-12-05 at 19:44:29:

It is reassuring to hear that you accept their is doubt, and that therefore you are not 100% sure that
the story you have quoted is not true.

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Comment 4 (3389) by OJB on 2012-12-06 at 16:19:34:

Can you tell me anything which we can know is 100% true? That is part from anything that are logically or mathematically defined in some way? We shouldn't let the fact that we can never know anything about the real world with 100% certainty fool us into treating theories or stories with almost no support as being comparable to theories with very good factual support.

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