The Reason in Believing Big Unknowns

The divide between atheism and religion often meets at metaphysical questions, of believing thoughts aligned with the observed, or those derived from intuition. Ultimately, it is a battle of ethics of what to believe, as neither side can be certain of its truth. But this is not unique to religion—the same type of battle is found in politics, in which scandals are filled with conjecture, and in general, with facts being thrown against intuition.

To start off, I want to dispel the allure of factual evidence, as an introduction to the rest of my argument. Our zeitgeist emphasizes use of empirical fact over general logic, which isn’t a bad thing, given those making progress know how to interpret their facts. But in more mundane, less scientifically-specific things, facts serve much less purpose than most believe. They have little place in ethics, for example; they can describe the extent of a good or bad situation, but cannot determine value judgments. They have little place in metaphysics or the general unknown too; they can help in extrapolation, but extrapolation can be notoriously inaccurate, given the things we haven’t observed may not play by the same rules as those we have observed. Atheists, I think, are most guilty of misusing factual data in the latter error, while politicians are guiltier of the former.

At least for the big unknowns, we should be free to make judgments without factual evidence. I first came across this idea when my sister told me she should be free to believe in spirituality, the thought that we existed beyond our physical selves, in a form that would transcend death itself; because it to her was more positive than the alternative, and because, she said, it didn’t matter what she believed. Without spirituality, she believed the transience of life implied meaninglessness. It was something she could not concede. It sounded childlike at first—how stubborn could someone be to not care for realism, and choose to believe in what she preferred? But she was kind of right. Beyond the fact that extrapolation with our current knowledge cannot now, nor may it ever sufficiently possibly even suggest or deny a god, I didn’t know an afterlife was real any more than she knew there would be no afterlife. So given the two options, why wouldn’t one pick the more optimistic choice, whatever it may be? Why hold a fixation on realism, based on evidence of only what we’ve seen, and opt for a personally pessimistic choice? It was hard to argue.

That said, I cannot advocate for the ignoring of facts which lead to a more predictable extrapolation, one more coherent with our laws of physics. To say one untested bowling ball will not abide to the rules of gravity, for example, with the knowledge that all other bowling balls will fall to gravity, is unreasonable; the situation is much too similar to anticipate deviations. But for especially questions which were basically designed to be unanswerable, such as the presence of god, or of ghosts, or our existence as simulations within a computer world, it’s essentially impossible to extrapolate with facts one way or the other. We cannot reasonably test that which we define to be undetectable. For these questions, and their equivalents in terms of testability, choosing an optimistic choice, or at the very least, agnosticism, seems only logical.

There are some caveats. A utilitarian perspective would counter this train of thought only if it detracted from the overall general happiness of the population—say, for example, you were a religious icon who one day decided it was more positive to be atheist. For this I would agree it would be more moral to stay religious, at least visibly so. John Stuart Mill, an influential utilitarian, would further argue that one should only choose the belief which was more personally reasonable, because immediate pleasure is differentiated from that which were felt intellectually, and intellectual pleasure is at the top of the pleasure hierarchy. To this, I say define your own terms of satisfaction, short and long term; if reason would bring the utmost joy, then pick the reasonable option, despite your perception of its inherent negativity. I do not believe, however, intellectual pleasure it’ gives a unique happiness, nor is it at the top of everyone’s hierarchy. I align with a philosophy closer to Jeremy Bentham’s, which did not differentiate between pleasures, and whose creator would have argued simple pleasures could be comparable to intellectual ones.

I still may not believe in spirituality, or religion of any sort, as I prefer to stay more grounded, at least within metaphysics. But I would be a fool to denounce religion for the sole premise of a god. For more specific aspects, such as the separation of the sea, or transformation of water to blood?—sure, because with current observations which are relatable enough to those stories, it’s unlikely they happened, to say the least. The believing in god, however, or any other big unknown which cannot be reasonably proven, comes down to personal preference. Factual evidence has no place in those arguments. The choice which is right becomes a game of utilitarian ethics: it is the one that provides most overall pleasure for yourself and the human race, plus whatever else you think is important (animals, maybe).