In the course of reading books about modern science, I frequently come across an appealing phrase: inference to the best explanation.
I like the sound of it. It makes sense to me. It's a foundation of both the scientific method and how we deal with issues in everyday life.
Defining this approach in any detail can lead into some tricky philosophical territory that I'm not much interested in. This article summary from the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy is good enough for blog post purposes.
Inference to the best explanation is the procedure of choosing the hypothesis or theory that best explains the available data. The factors that make one explanation better than another may include depth, comprehensiveness, simplicity and unifying power. According to Harman (1965), explanatory inference plays a central role in both everyday and scientific thinking.
In ordinary life, a person might make the inference that a fuse has blown to explain why several kitchen appliances stopped working all at once. Scientists also seem to engage in inference to the best explanation; for example, astronomers concluded that another planet must exist in order to account for aberrations in the orbit of Uranus. However, despite the suggestiveness of cases like these, the extent to which we do and should rely on inference to the best explanation is highly controversial.
Highly controversial? Well, maybe to professional philosophers. Choosing a hypothesis that best fits the available data seems not very controversial to me.
Here's two slides from an academic presentation on this subject that I came across via some Googling.
"Comic relief" is a good way of describing how I've come to look upon supernatural religious claims. They're akin to the notion of tracks in the snow being made by a trained monkey wearing snowshoes. Possible, but highly improbable.
Likewise, it's possible that God exists. It's possible that life after death is a reality. It's possible that consciousness is immaterial rather than being produced by goings-on in the brain. But each of these possibilities is highly improbable, given the evidence.
Thus they don't pass the Inference to the Best Explanation test. Other hypotheses do: God is a fantasy. When we die we're dead and gone forever. Consciousness is produced by the brain.
But here's the beautiful thing about taking a scientific approach to reality.
An open mind is able to adjust to fresh facts with ease. If somehow solid evidence appeared for the existence of God, life after death, or the immaterial nature of consciousness, I'd have no problem changing my mind on these subjects.
Even more, I'd joyfully change my mind, since I think it'd be great if any or all of those things were true.
How many religious believers, though, can honestly say the same thing? I suspect, not many. Meaning, what if undeniable evidence surfaced that the foundation of their religious faith was false? Could they give up their religious belief as easily as I could surrender my atheism?
I doubt it.
This is the difference between open-minded atheism and closed-minded religiosity. Every atheist I know -- and I know a lot of them -- is open to the possibility of a supernatural side to reality. However, my experience is that most religious people are so attached to their chosen faith, they have great difficulty imagining giving it up.
I'll end by saying that engaging in inference to the best explanation isn't necessary, or desirable, in many areas of life. For example, our personal likes and dislikes. We don't need reasons for liking or disliking broccoli; or rap music; or New York City; or watching baseball; or countless other things.
That said, I feel that we still need to keep an open mind to our own predilections, what appeals to us, because we can surprise ourselves.
For example, I've been pondering a replacement for my much-beloved 2017 VW GTI for quite a few months. I enjoy automobile "window shopping." Reading car reviews and watching You Tube reviews is a pleasure for me. Because I'd driven a Mini Cooper S for five years prior to the three years I've driven the GTI, I'd been focused on other small, fast, fun cars.
Yet I'd paid attention to other subcompact cars such as the Subaru Crosstrek. My "inference," so to speak, was that even though I'd never driven a Crosstrek, I wouldn't like it, given its underwhelming engine.
However, the more I pondered my driving wants and needs, the more I realized that a Crosstrek could make sense as a GTI replacement. After a test drive, I wrote a post on one of my other blogs, "Here's my pitch to be in a Subaru commercial." Excerpt:
Today, though, I drove the GTI to Capitol Subaru to test drive a 2019 Crosstrek Limited. I adore small cars. I'd studied the Crosstrek because I liked its subcompact size and all-wheel-drive (it's just eight inches longer than the decidedly small GTI).
However, I couldn't get past the reviews that talked about the underpowered Crosstrek engine and lack of driving excitement. A few days ago something changed in my psyche, though.
I began thinking to myself, Maybe at the age of 71 I've had enough of fast cars that handle great. Perhaps it's time for a new phase in my car life.
A few days ago I put in an order for a 2020 Crosstrek. I waited a while after the test drive to make sure that my change of automotive heart wasn't an impulsive fling. It wasn't. I'd changed. I'd altered my personal inference to the best explanation of what car I wanted.
Such is life. When we're open to change, to fresh facts, to surprising ourselves about what we value and believe.