Thoughts tumbling in my brain

It’s been a while since I got on my high horse, but Monday was an interesting day and deserves some reflection (off I gallop!). If you want to pick me up on anything I say in this post (I know it’s going to lack nuance), go right ahead – via comments or email, sure, but if possible, over a pint in a pub somewhere.

Giddy up!

Monday’s philosophy of science class was our lecturer Stephen’s attempt to pin us down on where we were ‘at’. He asked some big questions about the nature of truth and whether it’s attainable, the demarcation (separation) of science and non-science, and the interaction of science with other spheres of culture and knowledge. Let’s just say the discussion was robust.

Following the class discussion, Lord Robert Winston visited for a Q & A session. I found his thoughts on science outreach really interesting, and would love to get involved with that type of work, but when the questions turned to religion, it all went fuzzy. He’s apparently had exchanges with Richard Dawkins, and I realised that Dawkins must get frustrated all the time. People – even highly intelligent, successful, inspirational people – seem to hear him say things that they think he’s saying, not what he’s actually saying. But that’s digressing…

Let’s get to my thoughts on truth, demarcation and social constructivism. In brief, without nuance. In fact, in bullets:

  • Truth is too slippery a word to use and always leads to an argument over semantics. I prefer to ask ‘is there an objective reality?’ than ‘is there fundamental truth in the universe?’
  • Yes. I believe there is an objective reality. Science, and human knowledge in general, will only ever be able to achieve an approximation of this picture, but that approximation can be generalised (eg, into laws), used for prediction and functionally achieve what we’d say is ‘truth’ in a day to day context. For example, our understanding that a carbon nucleus contains 6 protons might be fundamentally overturned by some future discovery, but in all of the applications we use that knowledge for today, it is ‘true’. The concept explains the facts we have, and has been very successful predicting the outcome of new, uncertain situations.
  • There is a demarcation between scientific and nonscientific ways of attaining knowledge about reality. However there are grey areas. I’d say words like observation, rationality, falsification, reproducibility and predictive power fall strongly on the ‘scientific’ side of things, with creativity, intuition and experience standing outside the fence but frequently jumping over to play in science-land, and faith, dogma and superstition well out on the other side of the field.

With that in mind, I make a distinction between science as a method and science as a culture.

  • Science as a method seeks to remove the biases associated with being an individual human. Academic honesty, reproducibility of results, peer-review, statistical analysis, logic, falsification, explanatory and predictive power of hypotheses, open dissemination of information – all tools in the box. They’re not all used for every job, and may not be applied correctly when they are used. However, overall, they seek to sift out useful knowledge from our observations, intuitions and ideas, and move us closer to an explanation of reality.
  • Science as a culture has a complex, ever-changing structure based on time, place and a whole suite of influences. These might include dominant academic paradigms, financial pressures, political regimes… the list goes on. This culture is wholly a part of the overall cultural landscape of society. I make no fundamental distinction between the culture of science and cricketing culture, Jewish culture or Australian culture. Any individual can be a part of as many cultures as they wish, but some aren’t particularly compatible!

Alright – there an attempted summary of where I’m at. Also, I need to define the terms faith and belief. I use the word belief as something taken to be true, based on some position of evidence. I use the word faith as something taken to be true, irrespective of evidence for or against it. So, for me, saying “the sun is hot” is a statement of belief, while “any extraterrestrial aliens we encounter as a race will be benevolent” or “Zeus rides in thunderclouds and casts lightning bolts around the world” are statements of faith.

How appropriate! A church in Dingle.

The way I distinguish science from other ways of knowing is that it can sort out new information into what works as an explanation of reality, and what doesn’t. It has a specific aim, and conventions which seek to refine the raw output of fallible people into useful, broadly applicable concepts.

Other spheres of human endeavour – art, religion, music, literature – are ways we can experience the world, and interact with other people, and enrich our lives. But they don’t offer a useful approach for understanding the way things are. Not only that, once we detach ourselves from attempts to understand reality, we move into the world of opinion, with all its intrigue, interpretation and bias. I’m not trying to demean those spheres, because I love reading, obsess over music and will talk for hours about photography.

Basically, if I want to know the answer to a question for which there is an objective answer, I’ll look to the toolbox of science. “Who is the better epic fantasy author, Terry Goodkind or Robert Jordan?” isn’t a question with a right answer – even if it’s a fun one to discuss – but “Who sells more books, Terry Goodkind or Robert Jordan?” is, and can be answered using a scientific approach.

Chatting to a friend mid-week, he raised the point that a huge amount of culture today has been influenced by religion and classic literature. His study of those areas means he sees more depth and connection in culture, in general, than I do. I can’t argue with that, because I know it’s true. My own experience of learning about nature and science means that I see ‘more’ in the world around me than many other people, and for me, it’s a source of ongoing excitement and inspiration.

My nonreligious upbringing (areligious? Basically it just wasn’t mentioned), in combination with my fascination with natural phenomena and science, leaves me in a somewhat uncommon position. In the same way that an outsider listening to two fans quoting the TV comedy Scrubs will understand the words but won’t ‘get it’, I feel the same about religiously-influenced aspects of culture. So, for example, when I first investigated the story of the life of Jesus and the crucifixion as a teenager, I was baffled as to where virtue could be found in the tale. I still find the concept of vicarious sacrifice (‘Jesus died for your sins’) a shameful, unethical message – I’m directly answerable for my actions and the thought of someone else being violently punished on my behalf makes me feel physically ill.

So for me, ‘missing’ that gradual buildup of a religious worldview and education gives me a very different perspective on the New Testament stories to many. As a teenager, I was even more stunned to discover that millions (billions?) of people oppose scientific knowledge, such as evolution, due to religious dogma; ah, the naive days of youth. Now I’m less stunned, more disappointed, and insatiably curious (as usual): why? Why are people religious? Are there insights about the world that are inaccessible to me, a nonbeliever? Why are things that seem plainly wrong and dubiously moral so compelling for others?

Right, well, I could ramble on for thousands more words on this topic… and I’ve started veering off topic. I feel I’ve achieved what I set out to: put my basic thoughts about science into writing, so I can read them back and see if I actually agree with myself. Yup, lofty goals. If you’ve made it this far, well, you’ve looked through a small, frosted window into my brain… feel free to comment on what you saw!

The endless colours and patterns of nature… my mind never stops wondering about them!
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Categories: Thoughts | Tags: , | 10 Comments

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10 thoughts on “Thoughts tumbling in my brain

  1. i cant believe you didnt finish the post with “the truth is out there”!

  2. BTW the pic of the horsie is beautiful <3

  3. Jonny

    “Other spheres of human endeavour – art, religion, music, literature – are ways we can experience the world, and interact with other people, and enrich our lives. But they don’t offer a useful approach for understanding the way things are.”

    Isn’t this statement in itself a statement of faith? Or at least calling for stronger definitions of “useful”, “understanding” and “the way things are”?

    • Well, no. I would argue that there’s plenty of evidence to support the claim – making it a belief. I used the words in a common-use, literal sense. The way things are = the status of reality, useful = something which is helpful for a purpose, understanding = err, comprehension? Yes, it’s reductionist… but I challenge you to pose a question about reality that could be better answered using religion, art or literature than science.

      What I’m trying to say is that, once I start making statements which do not reference natural phenomena, there’s nothing to anchor a judgment of whether I’m correct/incorrect on except your opinion. “Art enriches my life” is a value judgment, and unless you force me to define each term ad nauseum until we hit a biochemical pathway for artistic enrichment (ie, a scientific approach), you can’t prove me wrong.

  4. Peter

    On the culture of religion – I think the key attribute your mate has is that he has studied something to do with religion and classical literature, and that gives him a perspective that is beyond that of most people who even fully practice their religion. Obviously the range of attitudes varies considerably but for many people religion could be more accurately described as a habit and a collection of firm viewpoints rather than a culture. So there are certainly insights unavailable to you, as an areligious person, but you will share this with many religious people.

    Back to science, most people have very little exposure to scientific thinking and in fact a lot of people who have studied science exhibit a lack of curiosity about the culture and methods of science. There is simply too much else to learn, perhaps in contrast to a stufy of classical literature in which a lot of the focus will be on the cultural and historical aspects. So scientific thinking is even more foreign to many people and in the western lifestyle there are a whole raft of influences that are actually trying to actively undermine cricital-thinking – virtually all marketing/advertising, a lot of mainstream media reporting on politics. I think your thoughts are pretty much in line with mine on science and other forms of knowing.

    • Fair points Pete, and our similarity of understanding is probably because your course back in 2007 really ignited my interest in the area! Of course I’m still very much in the early stages of exploration on the subject, so my thinking has a lot of shifting grey areas…

      It’s an interesting parallel between the study of religion and science – the number of people in society who ‘use’ each of these is much greater than the number who have studied the history and nature of them.

      I guess that comes back to the science ‘toolbox’ – you don’t need to understand how a tool was developed to successfully apply it. I needn’t know electrical engineering or programming to use a computer, just like I don’t need to read Popper to apply a hypothetico-deductive experimental design.

      And that’s partly why I separate science as a method from science as a culture – perhaps less so in the past, but today, science for many is a trade or profession. The endeavour is unique because because its toolbox, alone among many, can refine observation and ideas into self-correcting and verifiable insights about reality.

  5. Chris

    I have to take you to task, David, saying that religion was not discussed when you were growing up. Maybe, not in an in-depth, academic, examining-particular-religious philosophies way, but we did share our inability to understand what makes people have faith in a particular religion, and our frank ‘atheism’ as part of our ‘belief’ system. We also discussed the damage we felt various religious beliefs had caused, and were continuing to cause people around the world.

    • Really? I don’t recall at all. Fair enough, duly noted! I know you wouldn’t have shied away from the topic, but I can’t remember any specific discussions we had about it when I was young.

  6. Pingback: Christmas season and religious hate « David Robertson

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