Today Nate Silver was called a "data god" in the Doonesbury comic strip. So I figure it's appropriate to honor his sacredness with another post about his fascinating book, "The Signal and the Noise."
Silver is a hero of the reality-respecting community, of which I'm a proud member. He successfully predicted the outcome of the 2012 presidential election, getting the Obama vs. Romney winner correctly in all 50 states.
Early on in his book, Silver talks about how we have a lot more information now, but this doesn't mean we have more knowledge.
Meanwhile, if the quantity of information is increasing by 2.5 quintillion bytes per day, the amount of useful information almost certainly isn't. Most of it is just noise, and the noise is increasing faster than the signal. There are so many hypotheses to test, so many data sets to mine -- but a relatively constant amount of objective truth.
Consider how religious, spiritual, and mystical choices have multiplied.
Not long ago almost all people in a certain locale shared the same metaphysical beliefs. Though there might be several religions to choose from, usually one would be dominant. And information about belief systems in other parts of the world was hard to come by.
Now, the Internet and other modern means of communication allow people to select spiritual beliefs from a vast menu of options. Yet Silver writes:
There isn't any more truth in the world than there was before the Internet or the printing press. Most of the data is just noise, as most of the universe is filled with empty space.
This doesn't bother most religious believers. They have faith that their belief system is true. It's the other religions that are mistaken. Of course, each of the thousands of competing faiths has the same attitude. So we're left with a noisy cacaphony of voices, all screaming "Believe in MY God!"
Everybody can't be right.
Like Silver said, there's no more truth in the world than there was before we knew about all the competing metaphysical beliefs scattered around planet Earth. We just have more choices now.
Today I read a section in Silver's book about the scientific method. This is the best way humans have come up with for deciding what is a true signal about objective reality, and what is false noise.
For most of my life I've been enamored with the notion that spirituality could be viewed as a science. Meaning, if there is more to reality than the physical universe, or other material realms, it should be possible to confirm this through the scientific method.
In four simple sentences, Nate Silver summarizes this method.
Observe a phenomenon
Develop a hypothesis to explain the phenomenon
Formulate a prediction from the hypothesis
Test the prediction
Prediction is all-important.
This is what separates ideas about objective reality from objective reality itself. Beliefs are cheap. Facts are expensive. Meaning, as already noted, the world's truth stays about the same while ideas about what is true proliferate exponentially.
Anybody with an Internet connection can spread their notions of what the cosmos is all about, including hypotheses about the presence or absence of God. But the reality of God, or the lack thereof, almost certainly doesn't change.
If you're a member of a religion, form of spirituality, or mystical practice which makes specific testable predictions, congratulations. Please leave a comment on this post and tell me about your belief system.
Seriously. I'm requesting this because I can't think of any that do. Certainly not the major world religions.
The evidence of salvation will be clear after death. Heaven will become a reality when the soul leaves the body. Miracles aren't subject to scientific investigation. Paranormal powers are to be kept secret, not revealed. Jesus' Second Coming is always about to come. Enlightenment is nothing special, so can't be objectively observed by others. And so on. And so on.
Religions don't come with specific predictions, like cars do. When you buy a new car, a warranty comes with it. The manufacturer predicts that you will be able to start the car, drive it where you want to go, and continue doing so with minimal or no problems for a certain number of miles/months.
But with religious belief, predicted outcomes usually are conveniently far into the future. Often after death, which makes scientific hypothesis testing impossible to accomplish.
Or the results are so general, vague, or commonplace, there's no way to decide whether the spiritual "phenomenon" really was the result of a particular practice. For example, often people comment on this blog about how much better they feel after joining a certain faith.
Well, people also feel better after getting married. Or getting divorced. Or after taking a vacation. Or after accomplishing a goal that is important to them. Predicting that you'll feel better after signing on with a religion has little or nothing to do with how true the religion's view of objective reality is.
I'm doubtful that the scientific method will prove useful in proving or disproving religious claims, because other-worldly belief systems are adept at shunting their central claims into, well, another world. Which isn't evident or capable of objective investigation.
However, individuals can still apply Silver's approach.
Consider what predictions your chosen form of spirituality makes. What can you expect to experience by following your belief system? If this doesn't happen, or if you can't think of any way to test the objective truth of what you believe, maybe its time to move on to embrace something with more reality in it.