Standards of evidence

Some time back in a discussion on religion, someone once told me that we weren’t going to come to an agreement on the existence of god because, between us, we had “different standards of evidence.” And I’ve heard similar sentiments many times over before and since, notably in regards to whether or not we’ve been visited by extra-terrestrial intelligence. The phrase itself most often sees usage in the US justice system since there are different criteria among civil and criminal courts to establish “beyond reasonable doubt” – it’s disturbing how wishy-washy the language is when it comes to determining just what it is we’re going to sentence people with. The issue with the concept, however, isn’t what we hold as standards, but what our goals actually are, and there’s a distinct short-sightedness that’s present in too many such discussions, one rarely recognized.

Some religious pundit, who will go unnamed since because I don’t feel like looking up his name, once made an open cash-challenge to anyone to prove that the Earth was not the center of the universe; apparently, geocentrism was being considered a point in favor of god in some way. He was hoping to capitalize on the simple idea that a center was meaningless without outside borders, and therefore he could consider Earth the focal point of the universe if he damn well pleased. Even a lot of religious folk don’t put any weight behind such non-negative arguments, with good reason: they establish absolutely nothing, and when it comes right down to it, the physics behind the mass-gravity model of orbital mechanics not only explains the behavior of everything in the universe quite handily, they work amazingly well to predict results when it comes time to, you know, put a planetary probe in parking orbit around another planet. A “center” to anything is an arbitrary and useless concept; what matters is, how will the probe behave in proximity to any collection of mass it approaches?

Which begins to highlight the fundamental (a ha ha) difference that exists. Nobody cared that the pundit wanted to believe that the sun actually orbited the earth, therefore god – personal opinion doesn’t provide anything of further value. There’s a distinctive, and vast, difference between self-affirmation and actually deriving something of future use to us as a species. UFO proponents are notorious for simply wanting to win some debate. But while it would be of remarkable interest to nearly everyone to know that extra-terrestrial life, in any form, had been found, the real value lies in actually having some useful information, and especially in being able to take this further. How can we study it, how much does it differ, how did it develop, how old is it, how close is it, how does it reproduce, does it have a DNA analog, and on and on in that nature for the next umpteen decades. These are not yes/no questions, and there is no stopping point to be found – and hopefully, the answers would not just satisfy some facet of curiosity, but provide something for us to use as well, some way in which we can improve our own standards of living or fix some issue that we presently have. That’s really what the pursuit of knowledge is all about, isn’t it? It’s almost certainly how we even evolved to have it, since it worked much better than simply accepting things as they were without question or interest. Notably, a lot of species have this investigative property to some extent, albeit less than we do; we’ve all seen kittens and puppies puzzling out whether a leaf is actually animated or simply driven by the wind, and crows and squirrels can easily be observed to utilize cause-and-effect reasoning, figuring out a way around some obstacle when trying to get food.

Does the puppy believe the leaf is imbued with free will and intelligence, perhaps visiting from another planet? Does the squirrel believe it is being punished for violating some commandment when it comes up against the skirt around the bird feeder? Answering these questions might give us some insight into the thought processes of such species, but no one is bothering to investigate them or really cares. Why not? Probably because, not only do we not think squirrels can provide us with information about supernatural beings, mostly it’s with the knowledge that if they did hold such beliefs, they’d still be wrong. We know where the squirrel-shield came from, and it’s hard to express how little value a theory of a Sciuridicentric universe would provide. Sure, it might make the squirrel feel better about itself, but how does that solve the issue of obtaining food?

Quite often, this is the point where someone feels obligated to state that mayyybe dry leaves really are self-animated and we just haven’t discovered it yet, abandoning that standards of evidence thing altogether and thinking the lack thereof is somehow significant – often this is slyly couched in terms of being “open-minded.” Yet there’s an obvious difference between being open to new evidence, and just trying to salvage a pre-existing belief with whatever two-step one can. For every “maybe” there’s a “maybe not,” and it’s even more open-minded to recognize that too, and hold out for something that leads someplace further than appeals to ignorance.

The value of knowledge is its utility. We don’t need to have any “standards of evidence” – we just need it to work and produce dependable results. At such a point, there’s no debate, and whatever someone’s personal opinion is has no effect or impact. We should never be looking for affirmation or emotional indulgence, we should simply be looking for functionality. That’s how progress is made.