Deception – walking the line
In some of my previous posts, I have suggested that we need to be more open and honest about what we do not know, to leave space for possibilities that have not been ruled out. However there is a very good reason why we have developed the habit of ruling out things that aren’t supported by evidence – called skepticism.
There is a long history of humans believing all kinds of wrong things for very bad reasons. It was the arrival of critical thinking with Greek philosophy that was the birth of various forms of skepticism, from those who argued that nothing is meaningfully true, to those who simply argued that some things are more correct that others. I won’t delve too far into the nature of skepticism in its different forms now as its a vast subject that is written about extensively by people far more learned than me. However there is an important point about the nature of knowledge – aka epistemology – which is worth spending some time on.
Being skeptical about things is an important part of reason. I recently told someone that a full super tanker has so much momentum at full speed that it would keep going right across the Isle of Wight. As I was saying this I had a queezy feeling in stomach, and by the time I’d finished the sentance I seriously doubted what I’d just said. At some point when I was younger someone I trusted – a teacher I think – told this to me, and I seem to have accepted it and it lodged away in my head for 40 years or so until it happened to come up in a conversation. To be fair I probably missed some detail or caveat, but why I didn’t question this more at the time is a mystery to me. Either way, I think we all agree that education should encourage everyone to have a level of critical thinking that (gently and respectfully) questions everything.
However there is also another side to this. Not all types of knowledge are the same. For example, if someone says that they see blue where you see green, its very difficult to confirm that empirically. So we have some things that we see as solid facts, and others that we term “subjective” to suggest that they are unreliable.
I would like to question this way of thinking about what is true and what is not. But first I need to reject one alternative philosophy that treats all these subjective ideas as just as valid as any other idea or fact – what you could broadly call post modernism, or relativism. I believe there are things that are true, and things that are not true. As the late Pope John Paul II said when supporting Evolution Theory, “Truth cannot contradict Truth”.
To some extent, the philosophical debate around the validity of subjective views has hidden what is to me the more important point – namely that there are different types of knowledge. There is no reason not to try to build the wall of truth in each of these realms, as long as you have a way to realiably identify the range of competencies against which each wall can be applied.
The wall of empirically verified facts is to some scientists, and indeed to the average educated person (if at least subconsciously), the closest we have to a wall of truth. For these groups, the empirical approach is not just a scientific method, its a philosophy, a worldview. They would deny it, but it could be said to be like a religion itself, a belief in science so encompassing that it becomes scientism.
Despite the incredible power and sophistication of this empirical way of building a picture of the truth, the foundation of this wall is composed of temporary objects that change, decay, and are gone. The idea that physical objects – which are mostly empty space described by weird force fields – should be the bedrock of our picture of everything, is okay to question. What if we consider a wall of truth where the foundations were the likes of symmetry (which makes things like physics possible), the platonic concept of numbers and shape (which make maths possible), of self awareness, even concepts such as love, hate, forgiveness. We tend to think of these things as in some ways not being as real as bricks and hammers, as scales and rulers. Maybe because they involve the world interacting in some way with consciousness, they are understandably seen as part of the world of human emotion and imagination.
The interesting thing is that the empirical wall of truth we have built has almost disolved its own foundation. It points to the fact that the idea of a local reality, of something physical existing in space and time, is more illusion than reality. There are philosophers and scientists that take extreme interpretations of these things, and say that the universe is nothing but maths or information, or even those who say that the universe is all mind at some level.
There is a quote from Stephen Hawkins “A Brief History of Time”, which I think describes these diferent types of truth well;
Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe? The usual approach of science of constructing a mathematical model cannot answer the questions of why there should be a universe for the model to describe. Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?
So going back to skepticism, my view is that like the scientific method, its a powerful tool that should be used often. However its also important to limit that skepticism to its rightful place in building a wall that will never be the complete picture. Just as you would never use a hammer to read a book, you need to use the right tool for the job it was made for.
Truth is surely one of the most valuable things to everyone; if that were not true then why do people spend so much of their lives debating things. My decision that I was an atheist was made through a kind of skepticism which drove a narrative in my mind. But when I look back, none of the arguments I’d created in my mind supported atheism – at best they supported agnosticism. The human mind likes certainty, and this is one reason the scientific method is so important in controlling this tendancy. However there is another side to this where the same type of comfortable certainty in rejecting unproven things can be just as incorrect.