Past Performance is No Guarantee of Future Results
Hello all! Dave here.
The title of today’s post refers to a disclaimer often found in investment literature—stock recommendations, investor prospectus documents, and so on.
I think this about sums up the problem of induction. I have previously claimed, paraphrasing Michael Shermer, that science is the best tool ever devised for understanding how the world works. To be more precise, it’s the best tool for understanding how the world seems to have worked so far. There’s an important distinction: If Hume is correct, we really have no solid reason to believe that we can extrapolate what seems to have happened in the past into future predictions. Or even look at the past and have certainty about what happened then.
For example, Stephen Hawking has said with regard to the Big Bang, “We observe that distant galaxies are moving away from us. They must have been closer together in the past.”
Oh really? While it’s tempting to say that this is true, really all we can say is that, unless nature is inconsistent, it makes sense that distant galaxies were once closer together.
But what basis do we really have for saying nature is consistent? It’s an assumption we have to make in order to do science, sure. And generally speaking—as far as we know—the fewer assumptions you have to make, the more likely you are to be right. So why assume that nature is consistent? Just because it usually seems to be… except when it doesn’t? Maybe that is what a miracle is: An inconsistency in nature. As good skeptics, we must admit the possibility. Although, if miracles can be, at least in theory, understood by natural science, then I think it’s just a semantic error to call them miracle. They’re more correctly things we can’t yet explain.
So what should we do? Abandon science and metaphysical naturalism in favor of global skepticism?
From a purely epistemological perspective, I think we have no other option. Global skepticism (with the single exception of self-existence a lá Descartes) seems to be the only bulletproof epistemic position. But here’s where Alex and I disagree: If the only defensible position is global skepticism, then it takes just as much faith to believe that evidence leads to truth as it does to believe in a deistic creator – or at least, both positions require faith (belief without real [non-circular] evidence). I think it takes more faith to believe in a deistic creator than it does to believe the that something came from nothing, merely because belief in a deistic creator begs the question, and the latter theory does not.
The only entity in a position to have 100% certainty of God’s existence is God. That actually goes for anyone. I am 100% certain that I exist: Not 95% confident, not 99% confident, not 99.9999% confident—I am certain. I know this because I could not be pondering such things if I didn’t exist.
That makes us all agnostics. (If you are certain a god exists, please let me know how you know this in the comments. Remember, to be certain about something, it means that it’s logically impossible that you’re wrong.) But what about belief? Which is more reasonable?
Occam’s Razor itself is an assumption, so it is circular to say “The belief with the fewest assumptions.” I would say that the default position, therefore, is to just say “I don’t believe.” There are an infinite number of things we could believe in but don’t, and the way that we have come to decide what’s believable and what’s not is based on what’s supported by evidence.
Is this wrong? Perhaps.
Does it work? Every day, in every field of scientific inquiry, throughout history, with the single exception of unsolved (I prefer to say not-yet-solved) miracle claims. It works in medicine, in agriculture, in cosmology, in every science you could care to name. And from where I stand, that’s really all I care about—what works. Considering the only entity I’m certain exists is me, what works in my favor seems to be something I’d be in favor of, right?
Epistemically, I think the jury is still out. I’m an agnostic atheist, but I’m dangerously close to believing in a deistic creator. I really don’t have any good reason for preferring not to believe other than that it seems to me to be more economical in its assumptions, and I prefer that. But is it true? I have no way of knowing. Do you?
Curious for your thoughts,
Until next time!
P.S. In a future post, I’ll tackle the ethical implications of such hardcore skepticism. Should be fun—stay tuned!
Dave Muscato is the Kansas/Missouri-Area Volunteer Network Coordinator for the Secular Student Alliance. He is also a board member of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. A non-traditional junior at Mizzou studying economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, Dave posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday and twice monthly for the Humanist Community at Harvard. His website is http://www.DaveMuscato.com. Opinions posted here do not necessarily reflect the views of MU SASHA, the Secular Student Alliance, nor the Humanist Community at Harvard.
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