Friday, May 15, 2009

What is truth?

Did anyone else notice yesterday that two competing goliaths of truth seeking squared up to each other in the media, on one side we had religion, represented by an old man in elaborate fancy dress kneeling down in the basement of an ancient building in Jerusalem, alone and in silence receiving his wisdom secretly, invisibly and in a special code that only his organisation can decipher; on the other side we had hundreds of people collaborating and working together around the world, igniting thousands of tons of controlled explosive and sending £2Bn worth of cutting edge equipment at 17,000 mph to a rendezvous with an invisible point of gravitational maxima 1.5 million kilometres into space with pinpoint accuracy.

For religion we have carefully crafted political statements, repetitions of the same old platitudes, offering nothing but hope at the cost of servitude to unfalsifiable dogma, for science we have the Herschel and Planck telescopes which will provide images (actual pictures that anyone can look at!) of what was going on billions of years ago, tangible answers to fundamental questions about the origins of the universe and hopefully insights into other planets like ours in the universe that could potentially harbour other forms of life.

Which story do you think the media found more impressive?

Predictably the Pope was covered on TV all day long (in between revelations about MPs putting dog food on expenses) and I didn't see the real human achievement story once, in fact not even the launch was covered, the geeks in our office had to follow it on the WEB, via a text stream.

Now call me uncharitable but if this is truly representative of the priorities and interests of the majority of people in this country then we are royally screwed. I have to ask why people are not bothered about something as fabulously impressive as Herschel/Planck, something that moves the needle of progress for the entire species, but are totally captivated by a deluded old man in a cellar with nothing new to offer humanity except the same old dogma and superstitious divisiveness. I don't understand.

This is a subject that has come up a fair bit in my recent and highly enjoyable exchange with Oranjepan but I think it is an important question, what represents truth, is it the Pope's view of the universe or Herschel's?

Anyway, for those interested in the science bit, check out this baby:


Oranjepan said...

Hey, don't put me in any camp - it's the debate between opposites which helps illuminate the parameters of both which I find most helpful!

I like to think that all ways of thinking should be complementary and provide different methods of understanding which contribute to the greater knowledge - I simply don't think it is wise to automatically discount a view just on the basis of disagreement or personal preference. Call me contrarian if you like...

Sure the news concentrates on personality for colour because precise details can quickly become technical, specialised and overly-dry. Balance is important, but it's a fine line between dumbing-down and elitism.

Steve Borthwick said...

O, sincere apologies if I did, I certainly didn't mean to; actually I’m not entirely sure what you refer to re. "put in a camp", hopefully just my "C-" language skills.

I agree that it would be nice from a “good will to all men” perspective if "all ways of thinking should be complementary" was true, but life seems to suggest that is that this is not. I don’t think this is about “bias”, I am in full agreement that we shouldn’t discount a view *just* because we don’t agree with it, but you seem to be suggesting that we also shouldn’t discount a view because of a lack of evidence to support it or even contrary evidence, in a nutshell that’s all I propose (perhaps I’m not understanding your point?)

I came across a good example the other day in a story about the recent serious outbreak of measles in mid-Wales, the reason I think its relevant to your point is that there you have two clear expressions of "ways of thinking", on the one hand you have medical science who take an evidence based approach, and on the other some concerned parents who don’t want to harm their children. Now you would think anyone would be on shaky ground getting in between parents and their kids, but the facts of the matter are that the statistical risk from dying of measles is higher than any statistical risks from the MMR vaccination, but people have stopped giving their kids jabs because of a “way of thinking”, call it an “argument from ignorance” that leads to them thinking that the risk of the jab is higher when in reality they place their kids in more danger by not having it. On the one hand you have a rational approach and the other hand an irrational one. Being a parent myself, I can sympathise entirely with what has happened, but we can’t avoid the fact that the consequences of getting it wrong are very serious indeed for the few hundred people whose children have now contracted this illness.

The consequences of this go further than the children themselves of course, the WHO had confidently predicted that measles would be eradicated by 2010, because of the irrational backlash against MMR over the last few years this is now not going to happen and we may even revert back to pre-MMR days when roughly 20 children per year in the UK died from it.

Oranjepan said...

Not at all, on science-based subjects like medicine the scientific approach is fine, but on non-science-based issues (like, say, whether to build a security wall around the West Bank) we need to take the views of non-experts into account.

When creating a holistic worldview therefore I think it is important to synthesise all these different methods of understanding to put them on a compatible level and integrate any new lessons which may be applicable.

I'm always astounded that Einstein wasn't atheistic, and as he was a far smarter man than me, I think it's worth bearing his beliefs in mind.

Anyway, I reserve my judgement, so if you've got to put me in any camp put me in the secular one.

Steve Borthwick said...

Ok, I think I see where you're coming from, perhaps we need to distinguish between "scientific" and "rational". In politics I concede that you may end up making a decision that is not scientific in the sense that it is not entirely based on evidence but I would argue that you would still seek to base political decisions on a rational and falsifiable argument (even if it is not practical to actually falsify it), i.e. we must have a wall to protect Israelis *or* we must tear it down because its oppressive.

An example of a non-falsifiable and therefore irrational (IMO) political decision would be "Jews have to settle in Israel because God promised them that piece of land". This is the kind of thing I would rail against because it is not rational, not because it's not scientific although the two things overlap.

Einstein was a Deist, people often try and pin religion on him because of his famous quote "God doesn't play dice" - in actual fact there are many documented examples of his view that "the concept of a personal God who interferes with the affairs of man is a childish notion"

I would say that I was secular too, i.e. I favour the separation of Church and state, something the Americans got right IMO;of course you don't have to be an atheist to be secular.

Oranjepan said...

I read today the speech by the newly installed head of the British RC church, who said he hoped to fight secular values...

That's a very politically sensitive point, especially when freedom of conscience is the primary secular value, and which preserved the RC church in this country from anti-popery!

Care to sharpen your knifes?

Steve Borthwick said...

O – You would think the Catholic Church would have enough on it’s plate what with the scandal in Ireland and the Pope running around offending just about everyone on secularism, abortion, condoms, Islam etc. But there we are IMO a classic example of an organisation existing in a bubble with only a semi-porous membrane, dogma flows out, but reality doesn’t get in.

There is a campaign running via the Humanist society to prevent Murphy O’Connor (the previous head of the RC church in the UK) from getting his hands on a peerage, which the Government seem happy to give him (why?) and what kind of warped message does that send, a case of keep your friends close but your enemies closer perhaps?

Oranjepan said...

I'm not sure about representation in the House of Lords as I think there is a case for the full spectrum of national society to be represented in an official capacity in the chambers of the national parliament.

The HoL should give a distinction to the most distinguished among us, so its an open question how we should decide this.

I think Lords should be mainly non-partisan and professional, so elections from within their professions may be appropriate for a large number of those to take their seats - instead of being appointed bishops could be elected from within their diocese and could reasonably claim a mandate to speak on behalf of their flock. Similarly Trade Union leaders can claim a mandate for their members through ballots (this would have the side effect of removing the argument for supporting Labour) etc

However the precise nature of electoral reform is a separate issue to whether any group should be allowed or prevented representation. Maybe you want to take that subject up in a new post.