Sunday, March 6, 2011

Inductive Reasoning vs. Faith

Many religious people tend to argue that non-religious, skeptical individuals have as much faith in their beliefs as they do theirs. This, I think, is a misunderstanding around the means that a skeptic incorporates certain beliefs into their belief system. Most of a skeptic's knowledge is accumulated through inductive reasoning. Inductive reasoning is the process of deriving general principles from specific instances or observations. It is uncertain, and only deals in probability as opposed to certainty, but it is nonetheless a powerful tool in acquiring useful, meaningful knowledge. And, to people unfamiliar with it, it appears a bit like faith instead of an application of critical thought.
The key difference between inductive reasoning and faith is that inductive reasoning is based upon statistical probabilities when having "faith in something" implies that there is no real reason other than an emotional or 'spiritual' apprehension to believe in it. Take, for instance, the inductive principle "lead sinks in water at STP (standard temperature and pressure)." What this is really saying is, "based upon an extensive amount of past data being consistent and unchanging in confirming the general principle 'lead sinks in water at STP,' it is probable to the highest degree that new observations will continue to confirm this as a generally applicable principle." Since that's quite a mouthful, the short hand version is a bit easier to use in regular conversation. But, as we can see, the long-hand version takes absolutely no faith, just a rather basic understanding of statistical probabilities. Predicting that a specific instance will result in lead floating in water at STP is simply as silly as betting on number 39 when playing roulette (the wheel only goes to 38). The odds are so stacked against it that it is entirely unreasonable to believe it, and thus entirely reasonable to believe the contrary -- that lead will sink, and that the roulette wheel will land on a number ranging from 0-38 (or 00). No faith required.

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