Metrics of belief, a thought experiment

I was discussing atheism vs. agnosticism the other day with a coworker of mine who is agnostic. My coworker made the claim that believing that there is a scientific explanation for everything takes just as much faith as believing in a god/gods. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to really explore the issue, but I thought about the claim (which I strongly disagree with) and came across an interesting rebuttal.

There are already a variety of well phrased rebuttal’s to this argument, such as [1], so my thought process didn’t really dwell on these arguments. Instead I focused on deconstructing the claim into it’s constituent parts and analyzing them. The key wording in the argument is “…takes just as much faith…”, which implies that the two statements contain equal amounts of belief (the direct negation of this statement implies the two statements contain non-equal amounts of belief). These statements are really just math statements wrapped up in casual language. So what, then, is on either side of the <, >, and = mathematical operators?

Then I had my big revelation: in order to make the claim that <insert science concept> takes just as much belief as <insert religious concept>, you must first have a metric for determining levels of belief. Without this metric, how can one really know that two opposing views take equal amounts of belief? It doesn’t really matter what the specific metric is, as long as we accept that such a metric exists or could be devised. Without this information, the argument falls apart.

So with this idea in mind, I started thinking what such a metric would measure. We hear phrases equating levels of belief all the time, but have you ever stopped and think what it really means for two views to take the same amount of belief? What is a specific amount of belief, and how do you measure it? I came up with a simple proposition: a metric for measuring levels of belief required to hold a world view is the ratio of the total number of ideas to know divided by the total number of ideas explained by a given worldview, or more succinctly:

level_{belief}=\frac{items_{worldview}}{items_{total}}

Basically this provides a ratio as to how much of the world is described by a specific worldview, with a perfect score being 1 and a completely wrong score being 0. Fortunately, we don’t need to know the exact value of items_{total} to compare two worldviews (yay Algebra!).

So where does that leave us in regards to atheism requiring as much belief as religion? Without a specific metric, we cannot make a direct comparison, mathematically speaking. This really isn’t a big deal though, because one of the cornerstones of religion is that they present an unchanging “absolute truth.” If we plot out the level of belief over time, it will have a descending trend. This trend is because a) items_{total} is constant, and b) some religious ideas are flatly disproven over time which leads to items_{worldview} decreasing. Science, on the other hand, revises itself to become more accurate as new evidence emerges, so its level of belief over time will have a descending trend which will either reach 1 eventually, or at least be asymptotic towards 1. This means that the a naturalistic worldview is guaranteed to have a lower level of belief than religion, given that their ratios will intersect at some point in time. If I were to guess, I would say that the two graphs intersected long ago.

There is one exception though to the above rule: the level of belief for all worldviews is zero if there are an infinite number of things to know (i.e. \displaystyle\lim_{items_{total}\to\infty}level_{belief}=0). This is a rather interesting byproduct of the rule. I interpret this to mean two things: a) all worldviews require the same amount of belief and b) since the level of belief is 0 for everything, the question is meaningless.

This metric idea has holes in it I’m sure. If nothing else, the definition of level_{belief} is somewhat arbitrary, so this whole thing is more of an amusing thought experiment than a rigorous rebuttal. It’s still pretty fun though :).

“Say what you will about the sweet miracle of unquestioning faith, I consider a capacity for it terrifying and absolutely vile.” – Kurt Vonnegut Jr. [2]

[1] G. Christina. “Is Atheism a Belief?” Internet: http://gretachristina.typepad.com/greta_christinas_weblog/2010/11/is-atheism-a-belief.html, November 03, 2010
[2] K. Vonnegut (1961). Mother Night (Dell Publishing).

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