Dear Mr Garvin,
I’ve like to respond by raising just two questions, both of which I feel are quite important.
Perhaps the first most important point to ponder over is to wonder if there is a willingness, an openness, to strive and embrace what can actually be demonstrated to be true, and to then follow through on that, and so with that thought in mind, my first question is this …
Q1. How willing are we are we as individuals to embrace as many true things as possible?
We are both in many ways polar opposites. I started out religious and experienced a conversion as a teen, then later in life came to a place where over a period of time I came to terms with the realisation that Christianity was not true, and then proceeded to transition through other variations of both Christian and also non-Christian beliefs for a time until I finally came to terms with the revelation that none of it was true at all. In stark contrast to this, you relate a story that is the reverse of that and briefly explain how, until the age of 38, you did not believe, and find that you now do.
We are both sincerely convinced that we are right, but that perhaps is the nature of things, because nobody consciously embraces things that are not true as “true”, and so that leaves us with a couple of rather obvious conclusions. Since our positions are clearly mutually exclusive, then either one of us is wrong, or both of us are.
Clearly we both also feel a certainty that we are right, and so that opens up the fascinating topic of human psychology, and how we are all in so many ways, prone to rather natural cognitive tendencies, such as confirmation bias, Denialism, Eisegesis, and many others.
Now this then rather naturally leads on to a second question.
Q2. How can we truly know what is and is not true?
It is frighteningly easy to be fooled and to fool ourselves, and that is perhaps illustrated quite well by the very existence of an entire profession of honest liars; namely magicians and illusionists. We know it is all pretend, and yet they still successfully fool us, but that is part of the deal, hence I use the term “honest liars”. There are of course rogues in that profession who rather sadly cash in on the ease with which humans can indeed by fooled by claiming to be psychics and mediums, and do so by deploying cold reading and other similar tactics to shamelessly defraud grief-stricken people. It has been my experience that some knowingly and consciously defraud (Sally Morgan caught with a earpiece while pretending to hear the spirits), but there are others who due to the positive re-enforcement of everybody going up to them afterwards all the time telling them how good they were, actually believe, and end up being rather astonished when their claims fail a test under controlled conditions.
Now you might perhaps have realised that I have opted to illustrate our debate regarding religious claims by switching to a less emotionally charged variation in order to ask this second question – it is essentially the same. There are the rather infamous mega-church pastors who knowingly and willingly make claims that they do not personally believe, are in it all for personal gain, and so end up fooling millions. There are also many others who make claims, of which the vast majority I suspect, truly do believe, and yet have simply fooled both themselves and others.
So, getting back to Q2, if we consider the reality of human psychology, then how can we actually know, how can we work out what is and is not real?
In your original article you talk about “the proper application of modern science“, and that I am convinced is fundamentally correct, I do very much agree that the scientific methodology, that has yielded so much for us, is the only means we have to cut through the normal and quite natural human cognitive biases that exist, for example clinical trials that are double or even triple blinded.
As an aside, you mentioned Carl Sagan and I can perhaps suggest a great book of his that addresses this very topic – The Demon-Haunted World. There he explains how you can apply the scientific methodology to differentiate between science and pseudoscience.
So yes, I would agree, if there is indeed evidence that is truly objective and not simply subjective opinion or anecdotal, and is independently verifiable, then that is something that is not wrong.
My own personal stance is that when it comes to the various religious claims, in all honesty I have not yet discovered anything that is truly objective and independently verifiable, and so I am not religious. It is for the same reason that I dismiss many other things as well, for example claims of alien abduction, lake monsters, ghosts, conspiracy theories, NDEs, and rather a lot of pseudoscientific alternative medical claims such as homeopathy and chiropractic treatments.
So what does it take to change my mind … one word … “evidence”, that withstands critical scientific scrutiny.