There has been a fair amount of discussion here about beliefs. Specifically about the nature of scientific knowledge, how that is justified and whether ‘inferences’ such as intelligent design and creationism can be considered scientific.
Richard Dawkins wrote about the nature of our knowledge and compared scientific and religious beliefs in a letter to his daughter, Juliet. She was 10 years old at the time. The article is very relevant to our discussions.
It’s taken from his book A Devil’s Chaplain – Chapter 7. Here are a few relevant extracts.
The subject is “something that is important to me. Have you ever wondered how we know the things that we know?” How do we know, for instance, that the stars, which look like tiny pinpricks in the sky, are really huge balls of fire like the Sun and very far away? And how do we know that the Earth is a smaller ball whirling round one of those stars, the Sun?
The answer to these questions is ‘evidence’.”
Dawkins declares that scientists are ” the specialists in discovering what is true about the world and the universe.” And “The way scientists use evidence to learn about the world is much cleverer and more complicated than I can say in a short letter. But now I want to move on from evidence, which is a good reason for believing something, and warn you against three bad reasons for believing anything. They are called ‘tradition’, ‘authority’ and ‘revelation’.”
Referring to people who base their beliefs on traditioon he says: “Their beliefs turned out to have no connection with evidence. They just trotted out the beliefs of their parents and grandparents, which, in turn, were not based upon evidence either. They said things like, ‘We Hindus believe so and so.’ ‘We Muslims believe such and such.’ ‘We Christians believe something else.'”
Moving on to authority he describes it “as a reason for believing something, … because you are told to believe it by somebody important.” . . .
“Of course, even in science sometimes we haven’t seen the evidence ourselves and we have to take somebody else’s word for it.
This looks like ‘authority’. But actually it is much better than authority because the people who wrote the books have seen the evidence and anyone is free to look carefully at the evidence whenever they want. That is very comforting.”
In discussion ‘revelation’ he says: “When religious people just have a feeling inside themselves that something must be true, even though there is no evidence that it is true, they call their feeling ‘revelation’. It isn’t only popes who claim to have revelations. Lots of religious people do. It is one of their main reasons for believing the things that they do believe. But is it a good reason?”
Describing revelations as ‘inside feelings’ he points out that they “must be backed up by evidence, otherwise you just can’t trust them.”
“Inside feelings are valuable in science too, but only for giving you ideas that you later test by looking for evidence. A scientist can have a ‘hunch’ about an idea that just ‘feels’ right. In itself, this is not a good reason for believing something. But it can be a good reason for spending some time doing a particular experiment, or looking in a particular way for evidence. Scientists use inside feelings all the time to get ideas. But they are not worth anything until they are supported by evidence.”
Ask for evidence
Concluding his letter Dawkins advises his daughter: “Next time somebody tells you something that sounds important, think to yourself: ‘Is this the kind of thing that people probably know because of evidence? Or is it the kind of thing that people only believe because of tradition, authority or revelation?’ And, next time somebody tells you that something is true, why not say to them: ‘What kind of evidence is there for that?’ And if they can’t give you a good answer, I hope you’ll think very carefully before you believe a word they say.”