In The Believing Brain, Michael Shermer gives a good description of how the scientific method works in his discussion of the null hypothesis. “Where philosophy and theology depend on logic and reason and thought experiments, science employs empiricism, evidence, and observational experiments. It is the only hope we have of avoiding the trap of belief-dependent realism” (p. 335) Basically the null hypothesis asserts that we begin by not believing anything, and that those who claim things to be true must be able to prove their assertions with repeatable tests and high consistency of results.
The main thrust of the book is about why people believe what they do, and the main argument is that it is an inborn human trait. The right side of the brain does things without any particular reason, and the left side of the brain makes up plausible reasons for the fait accompli. This process is helped by the culture’s individuals being raised in situations where most things are already set up to make previous people’s rationalizations about why thing behave as they do, into a functioning system of coordinated beliefs.
Here in Western culture this theory was put into play by Saint Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430), who was a Roman citizen born in Africa. His writings created the foundations of the Medieval Christian church. “Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe.” Upon those unverifiable thoughts, the classic Greco-Roman system of justification by proofs was dismantled, and the millennium named the Dark Ages took over men’s minds. The problem with that method of action is that anything whatsoever can be brought under the concept of “faith.” There are an infinite number of potential ideas, but only a few of those ideas will pass the null hypothesis of proof by physical test. Just saying something exists doesn’t mean it exists, and yet the human brain is prone to believe what it perceives, especially when it is a respected person making the claim.
Shermer explores the various reasons for our human predilection to believe unskeptically, and this book makes a good foundation for observing the world around us more carefully.