I was reading David Ropeik‘s blog “The perception gap: An explanation for why people maintain irrational fears” and came across this paragraph:
“…When we are uncertain, as are parents with autistic kids, we grab on to anything that answers our questions, because that sense of knowing affords us a reassuring feeling of control. Control is vital to anyone who is afraid, worried, uncertain…”
A sense of knowing allows us to predict the future, and thereby giving us control (whether imaginary or real). Being a better predictor of future is definitely a great help in survival — an evolutionary advantage, so it’s not surprising that humans have a built-in need for control. The problem is that not everything is predictable, making us feel less in control and therefore unhappy. Religion fills in that gap beautifully. The basis for most (all?) religions is that there is a supernatural being (god) that controls all the things we can’t predict. We can increase our sense of control by appealing to this god (praying, sacrificing, etc.) who will on occasion grant our wishes. Which explains why religious people are happier than the unbelievers — they believe they have control over the unpredictable when the unbelievers have to accept that there is nothing they can do to affect the unpredictable. This could also explain why it is so hard to give up faith: you’re asking someone to give up some of their control.
As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality,
they are not certain; and as far as they are certain,
they do not refer to reality. — Albert Einstein
Humans have a strong urge to find the “truth”. I think that’s an evolutionary trait helpful in gaining control — the “truth” allows for better predictions hence you have more control over your situation and have a better chance of survival/reproductive success. But due to our limited knowledge and limited perceptions there is no way we can find the ultimate, actual truth about anything. What we do is form a model that fits within our limited knowledge, and use it as the ultimate truth. A better approach would be to use the model as a predictor, and watch for a superior predictor to replace it, knowing that neither is likely to be the real truth. Einstein’s quote above puts this idea succinctly.
It sounds like scientists would all have this approach, but human nature intervenes — most believe their models (theories) are the truth and will argue vigourously to defend it as such. I’d much rather they’d argue to defend their theories as being the best predictors they know of. The difference in approach should give one an open mind to improvements.
Those whose beliefs of “truth” comes from a book (such as creationists) would benefit the most from this approach, as models in such books are not useful for prediction. Their vigourous arguments to defend their truth rests solely on discrediting other models. By not being able to predict properly with their useless models, they give up control over their lives.