One of the most important human attributes is our ability to identify patterns. For instance, we’re able to identify cyclical weather patterns, and know that the weather will become colder during a particular time of year. We can also identify that animals engage in particular behaviors during particular times of the year or under particular circumstances, such as a full moon or heavy rain. Our success as a species is largely due to our pattern recognition skills, and also in our ability to share and teach those patterns to others. A particularly important aspect of this is our ability to persist information across generations, which is something other animals don’t do.
There are ways that our pattern-seeking can get us into trouble. One such instance is when we recognize patterns that aren’t really there. For instance, we might notice that it always snows after a successful hunt. We ought to recognize this as a coincidence, or maybe because the most successful hunts occur during the winter. But that’s the extent of the relationship between those 2 events. Drawing any further conclusions from these things is a logical error; nevertheless, humans tend to commit errors like these all the time. The specific error to which I refer is the failure to recognize that causation is not the same as correllation. For instance, one might make the claim that, as ice cream sales increase, so do shark attacks; therefore, ice cream sales cause shark attacks. The error this claim commits is that it ignores a common cause. Ice cream sales did not cause shark attacks, nor did shark attacks cause ice cream sales. There is a missing event in our claim that brought on both of these outcomes.
Pattern-seeking can allow us to draw faulty conclusions based on an identified pattern. For instance, during the dark ages in England, people spotted a comet in the sky that we later came to call Halley’s comet. Halley’s comet was blamed for bringing the Black Death. Similarly, Chinese astronomers concocted an elaborate system of identifying physical characteristics of comets, and assigning those characteristics some meaning, including the level of pain and suffering the comet would bring.
Of course, we now recognize these associations as ridiculous. Why is this?
The answer lies in our standard for what we accept as valid evidence, and our strategy for rejecting claims. As Richard Feynman said, “It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong.”
It’s important to put the burden of proof on a claim when that claim suggests that something is present or meaningful. Can we test the proposition that comets always bring doom and dread? Yes, we can. Therefore, the moment a comet fails to bring doom and dread, then the claim fails. If we were really grasping at straws, statistical measures might allow us to reframe the claim to state that a comet USUALLY brings doom and dread. But if we find that no more doom and dread occurs after a comet sighting than before a comet sighting, then that claim fails, too. Therefore, the claim is wrong. There’s no use in continuing to perpetuate the claim, regardless of how that claim makes us feel, or how strongly we believe the claim. The evidence demonstates the claim is no good; therefore, throw it out.
Rigorous investigation allows us to separate fact from fantasy. Humans have not had tools to conduct rigorous investigation for very long, and these tools certainly didn’t exist 2000 years ago. The concept of probability was not even formalized until the mid 1600s (the first printed work on probability was done in 1494 – “Summa de arithmetica, geometria, proprotioni e proportionalata” by Fra Luca Paccioli). It was not until the Renaissance period and the Age of Enlightenment, once Europeans rediscovered Plato and Aristotle after returning from the Crusades, that our understanding of the natural world greatly increased.
Once philosophers and scientists were able to investigate religion in terms of the claims that it makes, both from a scientific and logical perspective, it didn’t take long for them to reject religion’s claims. It is not surprising that there is such a fierce anti-intellectual sentiment in so many religious circles; vigorous investigative academia leads to scientific and philosophical conclusions that clearly reject religion’s claims.
One of my favorite quotes is from Neitzche: “A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything”. The proof of a claim is in how it stands up to investigation. If the claim fails to meet it’s burden of proof, then there’s no reason to believe it’s true. Our recognition of this single concept is what separates us from a more primitive version of ourselves.