I Wanted To Believe
In an isolated corner of a cramped basement office in Washington D.C., there hangs a poster with an image of a UFO and the slogan, “I Want To Believe”. Or at least there is in the hit 1990s television series, The X-Files. And in this secluded office is a man, an FBI agent, whom the rest of the bureau thinks is a lunatic: Fox ‘Spooky’ Mulder. He believes bizarre things that others dismiss as complete nonsense, and this causes him to be barely tolerated by his peers and stuffed into this storage-room-turned-makeshift-office. It seems that in the real world, the opposite is true: the people who believe outlandish things are roaming free while those of us who are skeptical of their claims are kept out of sight like a dirty little secret.
We should all be investigators of the unknown and examine all available evidence that can support or counter the claims. The truth is out there. We should look at the evidence that is there, and not fabricate new evidence to back up a claim that we want to be true. Every scientific theory begins with a valid hypothesis, a falsifiable supposition based on limited evidence of an observation, and we begin the investigation from there. To test a hypothesis, experiments are conducted in an attempt to disprove it. If it cannot be proven incorrect, then it becomes a theory. A theory has evidence to support its claims, and we can safely and rationally believe it to be true. If ever the evidence is disproven, then it is time for a new hypothesis in order to gain further understanding; we must be ever-adapting and always remain skeptical.
As an example, let’s look at an outrageous claim, such as an obviously fictitious one as proclaimed in the 1986 children’s movie, An American Tail, “There are no cats in America, and the streets are paved with cheese.” How can this be falsified? If A) we are in America, and B) we see cats, then the first half of this claim is already proven false with simple observation. What about the streets? Can we tell if they are made with cheese by looking at them? Maybe not, if the pavement is a blend of rocks and cheese. After all, the jubilant song only said the streets were paved with, not made entirely of, cheese. And it never claimed the cheese would be edible after being turned into asphalt. To test this, we could take a sample of the pavement and examine it. We know that cheese is a dairy product, so we could examine the sample for any signs of dairy. In a laboratory, a chemical analysis of the composition would reveal bitumen, hydrocarbons, sand and rocks… but no cheese, no dairy proteins and no fat. Looking at the evidence, we can no longer believe the streets to be made of cheese, and if we do, we are not sane and rational people. Even nuttier if we were to start up a road paving company and invest in a herd of cows for raw materials.
If one is emotionally attached to a hypothesis, can one honestly try to prove it wrong? Suppose a man had been telling people for years that the streets were made of cheese, and that he often saw wild field mice nibbling away at the roads in the middle of the night, causing potholes. Suppose this was taken a step further, and a company was commissioned to line the sides of the roads with mouse traps, and crews were dispatched daily to inspect the traps and remove the carcasses of the unfortunate rodents. By chance alone, especially on rural highways surrounded by fields, a few mice are bound to be ensnared. It would surely be believed that they were caught trying to get onto the road and steal the cheese for their own selfish and evil purposes with an absolute disregard for the damage they are causing, rather than just trying to get to the other side! Now we have the man who started this claim, a company who generates income based on the claim, and families of workers who live off of the income provided by this company which is lining the streets with mousetraps (which have been ‘proven’ effective) all believing this. Would it really be in the best interests of any of these people to disprove this hypothesis? I would think they would be more likely to use the mice that were caught as ‘evidence’ supporting the claim. Because this claim benefits their and their families’ welfare, they want to believe it. When asked about the new potholes that are forming in the roads, the answer would likely be that the mice are clever, and have devised ways of avoiding the traps. “It’s not a foolproof system, it’s not 100%, but it’s definitely helping… just look at all the mice we’ve caught!”, they would say, “For every wily mouse who has found a way around the traps, there are ten ex-mice who won’t be ruining our roads anymore! The problem could be much worse!”
This is a belief that is benefitting people and their families. The company who is generating revenue which is being used to pay the workers who are placing and inspecting the traps, and the families of all the employees who are living comfortably are all benefitting from this. Does this mean it’s a good idea to allow the people to continue believing this? Wouldn’t it be a better idea to determine the real reason the potholes are created and do something about that? Perhaps addressing the real issue would create more jobs, better jobs even. Surely such a suggestion would be met with ridicule and attacked by Roadside Mousetrap, Inc. It would be in the company’s best interest to enforce the beliefs of their employees and continue generating income, rather than letting a new hypothesis give way to a new company that the workers can move to and benefit from. It’s a basic survival instinct.
Merely wanting something to be true does not make it so. In the outrageous example above, the people want it to be true so they can continue their way of life. Their beliefs are further reinforced by the church, er, i mean, corporation whose survival depends upon the people’s faith in their claims.
I’m sure women who encounter a lump in their breast would rather want to believe that it is just a benign cyst – that is by far a much more pleasant scenario than the alternative. Where would we be today if the general consensus was that if one finds a lump in her breast it is probably a cyst that will go away on its own? Sure, there is a chance that it truly could be a cyst. Would it be beneficial to pray to an unseen deity to ensure that it’s a cyst and nothing more? If the afflicted woman prayed for this, and it turned out to be a cyst, she would likely continue praying for further miracles without taking into account that it was probably a cyst to begin with. Suppose it’s not a cyst. Suppose it’s a tumor, and this woman is trying to treat her breast cancer with prayer, and doesn’t take action until the only option is mastectomy. If she believed that prayer really worked, she would probably believe that her god was being mysterious again, and perhaps this is her punishment for that one wild night at Mardi Gras where she amassed a copious collection of beads. That’ll teach her for acts of public indecency, now won’t it? In this case, wanting the belief to be true has a very negative effect.
These imagined scenarios are just a couple of examples of incorrect belief causing harm and impeding the true progress of humanity. Sure, these situations are made up, but we see examples of this behavior every day; people wanting something to be true and therefore mistakenly believing it to be true, contrary to evidence.
Shortly before fully accepting my atheism, I found myself wanting to believe in a higher power. I observed that many believers always appeared to be happy, even when their lives are rough. They always see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. Believing that God is there, pulling for them, they always manage to make it through the tough times. As it turns out, we all make it through our hardships with varying degrees of success. Either you survive it, or you don’t. Either you make it over the hurdle, or you wind up dead or in prison. Everything is constantly changing, including our life situations. The only difference being that the believers are ignoring the mental distress caused by the situation and choosing to believe that their god is working things out for them, just like a good magician making you watch his left hand while the right is performing the trick. The benefit is escaping the situation without any additional emotional baggage. The downside being that without the emotional distress to serve as a reminder we are likely to take the same course of action to lead us into this same situation again.
It turns out that my brief periods of lack of commitment to disbelief caused more distress than choosing one side of the fence or the other. Not knowing what one wants is more difficult than having a definite goal and working toward it. Indecision is always rough. Since coming to terms with my atheism, I have experienced a greater clarity of thought. Being able to say, “I don’t know how things will turn out, but I know I will adapt and pull through it,” is an honest answer, and easier on the emotions than being let down by a god who simply isn’t there.
My goal now is knowledge, I want to understand everything that I can, and I am enjoying the journey. Reality is far more fascinating than magical stories. Cosmology, Microbiology, Psychology; these are all entire worlds of strange and fascinating things waiting to be discovered, and all are far more fascinating than simple superstitions acting as explanations for the world, invented by our primitive ancestors before they had the tools for a better understanding of their environment. Sure, it’s possible to cover your eyes and ears and continue wanting to believe in God and heaven because it’s a nice story that makes you feel good inside, but wanting it to be true because it makes you happy doesn’t make it so – ignorance is bliss, but only for as long as you are able to remain ignorant.