Reality is real. This is, for some, an unreal statement.
They believe that reality is whatever someone considers it to be, that it's possible to create our own reality, that reason, logic, facts, and demonstrable evidence are useless in revealing whatever lies behind obvious appearances, that intuition and a gut feeling are better guides to truth.
Well, as I said in a post a few days ago, Tuesday's national election in the United States was a victory for reality. And a concomitant defeat for those who value subjectivity over objectivity, passionate belief over reasonable facts, "I feel..." over "I know... ."
Quite a few readers of this blog reside outside of the United States. You may not be aware of the extent to which politics in my country is polarized.
Our Republican Party has become the haven of dogmatic religious fundamentalists. They're matched in their closed-mindedness by dogmatic "Tea Party" types who yearn for good old days that never were, days when America commanded other nations, women were kept in their place, and the rich bestowed some of their wealth to whoever they felt deserved charity, social programs for the poor not yet having come into existence.
In their world view it was unthinkable that President Obama could be re-elected, since they expected that the imagined reality in their minds actually existed in the objective world.
When respected political analysts like Nate Silver of Five Thirty Eight dispassionately studied polls and other evidence that bore on who would be elected President, concluding that Obama was a clear favorite to win, these pundits consulted their gut and tuned into their feelings.
Then said: "Romney will be victorious."
But they were wrong. Nate Silver was right. In fact, the most right of anyone. He picked the winner in every state, all fifty of them. And almost exactly predicted the percentage of the national vote Obama and Romney would receive.
Now, what does this have to do with the sort of philosophizing about churchless matters that usually is the central theme of this blog? A lot, in my pro-science, anti-religion opinion.
Knowledge is known in a similar fashion, no matter the subject matter. How we distinguish between truth and falsity isn't all that different, whether we're talking about the likely result of a presidential election or how likely it is that God exists.
The big difference between these examples is that an election settles the question of who knew the most about the reality of voters' intentions, whereas the question of God's existence remains unsettled after thousands of years of human debating.
On November 6, once most of the votes had been tabulated, it was obvious that careful analysis of polls resulted in a much closer approximation of truth than the intuitive feelings of pundits. Demonstrable evidence mirrored reality, while personal beliefs didn't.
Consider a thought experiment.
What if the United States hadn't held an election on November 6? What if all the polling and punditry had proceeded just as it did up to that point, yet somehow we never knew whether it was Obama or Romney who had been elected president?
The objective reality of who voters planned to cast a ballot for would remain. There still would be true and false predictions of the election outcome. We just couldn't know for sure that Nate Silver was right, and all of the pundits on Fox News predicting a Romney victory were wrong.
But Silver still would have been right. And those pundits still would have been wrong. Objective reality is what it is, whether or not we know it to be that.
Similarly, God either exists or does not exist. There is essentially zero demonstrable evidence that any God believed in by the major world religions exists. So a dispassionate analysis of the question, "Does God exist?", leads to a simple prediction: No.
Yet pundits, who in this case are the myriads of religious true believers who have a feeling that God is real, continue to proclaim their own prediction: Yes, God exists.
So who is correct?
The 2012 United States election points to a firm answer: those who consider all of the evidence for and against the existence of something (like a presidential victory, or God), not just the evidence which supports a deeply held personal belief.
There's nothing wrong with believing. Everyone does this. What's wrong with believing is considering that we can't be wrong.