Using the Scientific Process in deciding what to believe
Being an atheist I often find myself in discussions and arguments about religion and why a fool like me can say in his heart, “there is no god”. In almost all these discussions, I get asked, “So you believe in science instead?” The frequency with this question pops up has made me conclude that most believers think of science as a substitute for God, and of the scientific process as a substitute for religion.
After 14 years of being asked whether instead of believing in God I believe in science, I find it wise to now write an article to not only provide an answer to those who will ask me the same question in the future (I’ll be sharing with them the link to this article), but also provide a clear explanation on what the scientific process is and how it helped me decide on what not to believe.
The article in itself is part 2 of a three part series on the question of science and the scientific method. Part 1 addressed the definitions and differences between what scientists consider a Scientific Fact vs a Scientific Theory. It was written as a response to Apostle Mr. T who had insisted that Evolution is a Theory but not a Fact. You can read part 1 by following this link.
In that article I explained a Scientific Fact as an observation measured with precision. Measuring human body temperature to be 420C is more of a Scientific Fact than feeling the body temperature with your hand then reporting it as hot.
I also explained that a Scientific Theory is an explanation that attempts to provide a clear reasoned understanding for the observed fact and how several facts can be related by one underlying principle.
But I didn’t explain Scientific Law – Which is nothing but a relationship statement that describes how related facts are related – e.g. how acceleration is related to the accelerating body, or how the volume of a gas in a closed system is related to its pressure.
Now let’s go through the scientific process that scientists follow – from deciding what facts to observe, to formulating a theory that explains why those facts are the way they are or how the facts that are related get their relationships.
What is a Scientific Process?
A scientific process is a meticulous and objective methodology used to probe nature for answers to questions that bother us. Some of the questions we ask nature to provide answers to include, “Why do things we observe exist in the form we observe them?” “How are different things related to each other?” “What caused the phenomenal we just observed?” “What is nature made of at the very foundation?” “How does nature exist in totality of it all?” From this paragraph, what you must take home are meticulous and objective methodology, and probing nature.
Probing nature is very key to the scientific process, because some people still follow after Plato who insisted that when you have questions about nature, the best you can do is to just think through them, and the thinking process alone ought to provide the the answers. He reasoned that the nature we see is not the real thing, but a shadow of the real thing. Probing the shadow therefore, according to Plato, can never tell us anything meaningful about the real thing.
Then came along his student Aristotle who turned around and said there is no way we can learn anything about nature if we don’t probe nature for answers. If we want to learn how the inside of an animal is made, Aristotle reasoned, we must cut it open and see the inside for ourselves. Aristotle is therefore considered the Father of modern science, as he birthed the empirical method.
Meticulous and objective methodology is what differentiates the real science from pseudoscience. That methodology must be objective such that there is specificity to prediction, which will make the conclusion arrived at falsifiable. Pseudoscience, on the other hand, is such that any data in that field can be used to support the already formed conclusion. In simple terms, a pseudoscience process will lead to conclusions that cannot be ruled out, even if that conclusion is false. Examples of pseudoscience are Sigmund Freud’s theories in psychology.
The scientific methodology should largely follow these steps – Conception of Idea (Asking the Question). At times, the idea is an attempt to explain a question that has popped up given existing theories. An existing theory that has brought more questions with it is the General Theory of Relativity. A prevailing question due to that theory is the speculated dark matter. So you can ask, “If dark matter is a thing, why can’t we detect it?”
After you have conceived your idea or asked your question, your next step will be to conduct background research, a lot of it. Most of the time you may find that the question you are asking has already been asked by others and the question itself found faulty, or the answer has been provided.
The next step in the scientific process is making observations (data collection), where as I defined in the last article must be identified by measurements. A scientist at this stage will rigorously describe his data collection process, the assumptions he made when doing the observations, and the limits, both inherent in the process and those due to physical constraints, that may affect the quality of data being obtained.
Once the data has been collected, the scientist will analyse that data to see whether it is in line with his original idea, or whether the data is telling him something else. If the data is in line with his idea, then he will accept his hypothesis, and move to phase 2. If not, he may reject his hypothesis then try to figure out if he is entirely wrong, or modify the methodology for data collection so as to get more accurate data, or if just he needs more data – but in the meantime he cannot accept his hypothesis.
The Peer Review Process
The second phase in the scientific process is subjecting an accepted hypothesis to more testing and verification, and this process is not done by the scientist, but by fellow scientists who understand the question being investigated, and the methodology used to probe nature for answers. The fellow scientists (peers) at this stage will replicate the methodology of observation and data analysis used, and see if they can arrive at the same conclusion.
Lastly, if the question being investigated was attempting to modify or overthrow an existing explanation, then the hypothesis, if found to hold, will be elevated to Scientific Theory.
How I use the Scientific Process to make decisions on what to believe
This has three parts: the first part is how I use the scientific thinking process outlined above (philosophy of scientific thinking) to help me in my decision making process, even when I cannot do data collection myself to verify whether or not what is being claimed could be true. The second part is through comparing competing explanations for the same phenomena, where I ask whether both explanations were subjected or can be subjected to a scientific process. And lastly where I use elimination process, where I change my mind from believing something if that belief has been ruled out as false given current explanation that has gone through the scientific process.
Examples for every part may help. The first part is where I use the scientific process to help me with logical thinking as long as that logical thinking is consistent with prevailing scientific explanation for natural observations. Situations where this has helped me in formulating a belief include when events suchs couples getting stuck together during sex, accidents occuring frequently at the same spot, or when Australia is experiencing devastating fires, happen.
Instead of jumping to conclusions that a curse has prevailed, I rather ask myself if a natural explanation can be found. When I do some research, and thank god we have Google, Wikipedia and tons of scientific articles that have passed through peer review process available at the press of a button, I usually find satisfactory natural explanations for the phenomena. In the case of Salgaa accidents for instance, I leaned towards the explanation that it was poor road design that was causing those accidents, not some evil spirits that Ms. Rachel Ruto tried to exorcise with anointing oil. We can see the results – the number of fatal accidents after Ms. Rachel prayed for the road, vs the number of accidents we currently register at the same spot after the road was redesigned. There are many others who believe the same.
#KenyanTraffic Salgaa has been safer this season after they dualled the section. Seems that was the answer and not the periodic prayers conducted after each incident. Who would have thought humans could actually fix it ? via @kiruik— KenyanTraffic (@KenyanTraffic) December 27, 2019
The second part is through comparing competing ideas. An example is in the Holy Spirit. When one is in a worship session, he or she may experience what is described as being filled with the Holy Spirit. The feeling is very powerful and some people end up falling down as a result. One explanation (theory) is that the Holy Spirit (if it exists) actually takes control of them.
A competing theory is that the experience stems from the same experience we feel when we fall in love, or have a crush on someone. Since someone in love can have feelings for the person they love even when that person is out of sight, the brain is therefore capable of generating associated love hormones through the process of imagination alone.
The explanation suggests that it is the same thing that happens to those who strongly imagine that they are in the presence of the Holy Spirit. This was put forward as a hypothesis by Patty Van Cappellen of Duke University in which he supplied participants with the love hormone, oxytocin. The participants who were sprayed with the hormone reported feeling a spiritual presence, or as some may put it, feeling the presence of the Holy Spirit.
What that means is, if I am a church pastor and I want my congregation to experience the presence of the Holy Spirit, what I will do is to spray them with oxytocin. Since the oxytocin hormone is something I can test, and there is no way I can ever detect the Holy Spirit, I choose to believe in the oxytocin explanation as the cause of what is termed as being filled with the Holy Spirit.
The third and most important part is the elimination process. The elimination process is basically the process through which someone should be able to change their minds in light of new evidence.
I once believed that homosexuals were attracted to same sex relationships purely out of choice and desire to go against God’s holy laws. Then I learnt that even animals particularly sheep are prone to same sex attractions. This coupled with the evidence that environmental, upbringing, and hormonal factors contribute greatly to such attractions, I had to change my mind from holding the view that homosexuals are simply defiant, to people modeled by nature to find same sex humans sexually attractive. Whether or not such people need help same way those suffering from bipolar disorder need treatment is open for debate.
It is through the elimination process that I became an atheist, and my reasoning was simple – if the God I worship is defined as all knowing entity, a God who inspired those who wrote the Bible, and is all powerful, then such a God could not have the most important book to have fundamental errors.
The premise of an all knowing God was so fundamental in my reasoning, that finding one fundamental error in the Bible was sufficient evidence that the entire thing had no inspiration whatsoever – but I did not find just one – but hundreds, the most significant ones being in Genesis 1 – e.g. the firmament question. First, if we approach Genesis 1 as entirely literal as it should be approached, we ought to have found the sky as a solid firm firmament, but we did not – so believers started explaining the chapter away as symbolic. Genesis 1 should be approached literally because before we discovered that the real world is totally different from what is described in Genesis 1, believers then treated it literally.
I also imagined a world that existed just as described in Genesis 1, and how preachers in that world would applaud Genesis 1 for being an accurate description of the shape, structure and origin of the Universe written at a time when no one knew anything about astronomy and cosmology. In that world, there would be no argument on whether or not the Bible was inspired by God. But we live in a world where Genesis 1 is so different from reality, that you find those who still believe in the story using word gymnastics to explain away the obvious contradiction between what the chapter says, vs what we observe.
A few of my friends ask me to acknowledge that the scientific process is not sufficient to explain everything, particularly coincidences, miracles, answered prayers, and most importantly personal experiences as reported by those who undertake spiritual journeys.
Although there is no time left to discuss this in detail, what I normally say is that anyone who embarks on any spiritual journey will report the same experiences – where we are left with no means to falsify any spiritual paths that may be erroneous. Despite the evidence that any spiritual journey will yield similar experiences, we have believers trying to convert others to their beliefs, insisting that it is their path that is the true path – yet they don’t have objective criteria for falsifying all the other paths.
My current belief in as far as those reported spiritual experiences are concerned is, majority are false reports (we have had people being bribed to say that they rose from the dead), and most of the others that are believed to be true have a natural explanation behind them, only that we haven’t investigated them yet.
Actually, James Randi’s 1 million dollar paranormal challenge for supernatural abilities undermined most of these “spiritual truths” when no one could pass the tests for winning the prize money. The challenge ran for 51 years from 1964 to 2015, received some 1000 applications from those who believed to possess supernatural powers, yet none of them could walk away with the cash.
The third and final part in this series will be to answer the questions I have been asked about evolution, as this is one scientific theory completely misunderstood by those who refuse to accept it.