Thursday, December 22, 2011

How to Settle the Burden of Proof

I want you to picture a guy, let's call him Paul, walking into an urban police-station. Beaming, he proclaims that he knows what happened to the dead body that was found in the river five days ago; that he's solved the mystery.

Let's assume that by some random chance, or maybe out of desperation, the police actually take him seriously. So they ask him in, lead him into a room, sharpen their pencils, switch on the tape-recorder, and take a statement. This is how it goes:

PAUL: "You ready? Can I start?"
OFFICER: "Sure. Please tell us what you know."
PAUL: "You see, he was murdered. Frank did it."
OFFICER: "Frank... Frank who?"
PAUL: "Well, Frank of course. Frank Frank. Who else would I mean?"
OFFICER: "..."
PAUL: "..."
OFFICER (With disappointment at the realization that this won't be the clue they'd been hoping for): "That's it? That's what you came to tell us?"
PAUL (Genuinely puzzled): "What do you mean? I told you what happened. What more could you want?"

We could imagine this going on indefinitely, but this little conversation is enough to illustrate my point. Merely tossing a name out there and proclaiming that a murder took place is not the same as truly solving the mystery of an unidentified body.
Yet, this is exactly how religious people tackle the question about the origin of our universe. They proclaim that it was "made", and that it was "God" who made it. And then they lean back, satisfied with their accomplishment of having "solved" the mystery, gaze us a beaming smile, and react confused when we reject their "explanation" as preposterous and stupid.

To complete the analogy, let's have Paul defend his thesis by proclaiming that it's more likely Frank committed a murder than that the water of the river simply morphed into a dead body.
This is analogous to the claim frequently made by theists that, due to the apparent fine-tuning of our universe, it being made is more likely than it just coming into existence "by a giant explosion". Of course, nobody ever said that a giant explosion was the origin of the universe, just like nobody at the police-department proposed that the body is actually magically transformed water of the river.
The Big Bang Theory is actually not about the origin of the universe: Like the police, we're still pretty clueless regarding that mystery; like the police, it's likely we'll solve it eventually. What the Big Bang Theory actually is about is the early development of the universe: The theory states that the universe transformed from a very hot, very dense state to a less hot, less dense state, which is analogous to the police stating that it's very likely the case that the body they found was, at some point in the past, alive. It's something we know beyond reasonable doubt. It's something we can prove pretty much for sure.

There are tons of people like Paul out there; People who really do not see the problem with the sort of oversimplified skyhook-explanation they give for complex problems. They are ubiquitous, and while they tend to be annoying, their existence does not actually bother me.

What does bother me is that my analogy fails in one very important point: Paul the potential witness is regarded as a lunatic by society, and will probably find himself in a mental institution in the near future. Paul the theologean, on the other hand, is a highly respected member of society, gets invited by TV-stations to comment on enormously important political topics and has a huge influence on public opinion regarding an incredible variety of topics.


  1. I love your blog posts. I find people who genuinely believe in some higher power to be so confusing, and can never quite believe they let such people into the house of commons never mind potentially letting them be Prime Minister or any other role with power.

  2. Contrast with the United States, where (even though it is clearly unconstitutional) there are laws on the book in many states that prohibit atheists from serving in public office. Of course, these laws haven't been challenged yet, because no atheist has gotten that far.

  3. @Izzy:
    Glad you enjoy my blog. I must say that people who passionately believe obvious lies have always triggered more interest and fascination in me than confusion. Seriously, I'd rather understand the human mind on religion than know what caused the big bang or how life came to be.

    @M.A. Melby:
    Times are most certainly changing. The media make a big blah blah about a supposed "revival of religion", but church attendance numbers are taking a dive all over the developed world. I don't know the exact numbers for the US, but I know that there too "nonreligious" is the fastest growing worldview.
    Let that sink in for a moment, and then consider the little fact that "nonreligious" are growing almost exclusively by means of spontaneous and silent (de-)conversion, while most growth the religious communities can put down is due to high birth rates.
    Atheism has barely started to stirr, and the religious side is already loosing the fight. "No atheist has gotten that far", you say? Perhaps, but we haven't even started yet. The AHA, American Atheists and all the other organizations are in court every day, and winning most of what they claim. That's why I think the most important task right now is promoting Humanism, to prevent people to turn away from religion just to find "spiritualism", horoskopes, alternative medicine and other such bullshit.
    Humanism needs to be there to fill the gap, or else people will simply substitute one superstition for another.

  4. "The Big Bang Theory is actually not about the origin of the universe" stephen hawking would like to have a word with you son, step over here...