The Scientific Worldview

The ancients answered unanswerable questions by saying “God (or the gods) did it.”

Questions surrounding the mystery of why people got sick, comets flew inexplicably across the sky, and volcanoes blew their tops, and so on, were explained through an appeal to mythical and religious narratives. This appeal reflected the very human need to address uncertainty by exerting, however ineffectual, some modicum of control over the external world. Human nature has not fundamentally changed (so people continue resorting to magical thinking and metaphysical handwaving in the present day).

As it turns out, what the ancients lacked wasn’t control but knowledge and an effective methodology: they lacked the techniques, critical thinking, worldview and technology required to leave the safety of the cave and emerge into the light seeing the world as it is as opposed to how it ought to be.

Science, the scientific method specifically, reveals we get sick due to disease carrying pathogens (not demons); comets are not harbingers of doom but conglomerates of rock and ice orbiting the Sun with clocklike precision; and volcanoes don’t blow up because the god of the underworld demands a virgin as sacrifice (it erupts due to a series of naturally occurring geological processes).

Religion gave us formulaic reasoning like “God did it.” Not particularly informative or descriptive.

Science gives us dynamic reasoning like “X happened due to physical factor A, B or possibly C.”

Science has shaped us socially and morally, in that, we make moral decisions (in the West) based on appeals to experience and practicality rather than to prescriptions like the Ten Commandments; and socially we have, and continue to develop, new relationships with one another through rationality in the form of democratic institutions, the necessary separation of Church and State, and establishing societies governed through the rule of law (as opposed to the rule of caprice).

Advertisements

Why Is Science Important?

The word science literally translates to “knowledge”; however, if you are asking what science is then we have to say it is a methodology used to investigate and observe the physical world. This methodology incorporates such things as trial and error, elimination, observation, consensus building, peer review and falsification; it also makes extensive use of philosophical tools like logic and critical thinking.

Science is important because it the only trustworthy means of investigating the physical world that humanity possesses; that is, science does not stand or die on unsubstantiated claims to knowledge like pseudoscience such as acupuncture (use needles to change your ‘chi’), homeopathy (water has memory and ‘like cures like’), or astrology (your fate is somehow connected to the stars). Rather, scientific claims are tested and either proven true or false, i.e. unlike pseudoscience, you do not believe in science—if you ignore the existence of gravity walking out of a window of a tall building gravity will still apply to you; thus, we accept or reject scientific theories on the basis of the prevailing evidence.

Science is likewise important because it provides people with actionable knowledge; that is, you can reliably plan for the future and make predictions based on scientific theories and models. Also, scientific literacy can help protect you from being exploited by peddlers of woo and adherents of pseudoscience.

If You Seek Wisdom Drop Your Opinions

The Buddha observed that if you seek wisdom you should drop your opinions. Experience has taught me an additional truth: if you seek wisdom develop your capacity to empathize, perceive and see issues from someone else’s point of view. Specifically, just because an idea or issue isn’t important to you (or doesn’t affect you directly) this doesn’t mean that that idea isn’t worthy of consideration or that the issue isn’t important in principle.

Too many of us, without even realizing it, think and operate from a narrow position of egocentrism or self-interest; we think we’re informed, and we hold strong opinions, but–instead of seeing the 1s and 0s that make-up reality like Neo from The Matrix–we are ultimately just making things up as we go along. We are being arbitrary. This kind of thinking follows the formula: if I don’t personally approve of X, or if I don’t like X, I appeal to a combination of my dislike, and fundamental ignorance, as a sort of evidence in support of my opinion on X. The problem, though, is your like or dislike has absolutely nothing to do with anything whatsoever.

I’ll explain.

I make mistakes in reasoning all of the time. I know for a fact I reach conclusions without having all the necessary information or without taking time for proper consideration. So why, I wonder, should I ever hold an opinion or view so strongly I am unwilling to change my mind? Moreover, should my experience ever be the standard by which everything else and everyone else is measured? I’m thinking, no.  I understand people are going to form opinions (that’s inevitable). Yet, isn’t it possible to form more thoughtful, nuanced, and principled opinions? I think so. But we must practice more empathy and more humility. We have to drop some of our opinions.

Former American Vice-President Dick Cheney was an outspoken opponent of the LGBTQ community for decades. Then, suddenly, he changed his mind…when his daughter came out as a lesbian. Now he supports gay rights. Gay rights are human rights. Women’s rights are human rights. The rights of people of color are human rights. Rights don’t just belong to my tribe. Cheney should’ve supported gay people, not because his daughter is gay (and he is now personally affected), but because reasonable people should seek to operate from a consistent set of principles and beliefs. If you do otherwise, you are just making stuff up as you go and living incoherently (worse still you’re imposing your incoherence on others).

 

According to the Buddha, when we form opinions we are creating not discovering reality. We construct a narrative that both makes sense to us personally and which agrees with whatever political culture we just so happen to belong to by the accident of our birth. Arguably, we need to create meaning; doing so helps us navigate and make sense of the world; nevertheless, in the process of creating meaning we would do well to avoid becoming a sort Dr. Frankenstein giving life to a monster (an opinion) reflecting our vanity on to an unwitting world; rather, we have a certain ethical responsibility to ourselves and others to think and contemplate well; and, if you can, give life to opinions reflecting principles that are self-evidently true rather than to ones satisfying the need to win arguments or mock others. In the end, there’s more that links us than separates. Perhaps if we forget some of the things we were taught, or that we’ve taught ourselves, we can in principle work towards building better and happier communities.

The Problem with Deduction

Scholastics were medieval theologians and philosophers who focused their efforts on protecting the teachings of the Catholic Church from being challenged and replaced. They never tested anything empirically.[1] Instead, scholastics emphasized the importance of “revealed truth” in figuring out what was right from what was wrong. This means they relied on God Himself to talk to them and reveal truth to them. The problem with relying on revelation was determining whether God was actually talking to you or you were simply talking to yourself. There was no way to scientifically test where the voice (and ideas) were coming from; it was, after all, quite possible scholastics were just convincing themselves God was inspiring them. Ultimately, scholastics had one purpose—to defend Church teachings from challenges by freedom seeking kings, questioning scientists and troublesome philosophers.

Scholastics relied on not only their inner voice but also the use of logic and deduction. [2] Deduction is a powerful tool because you can use it to create a big idea from little information. For example, in the 20th century we finally had telescopes powerful enough to look outside of our galaxy. A Catholic priest named Georges Lemaître (1894-1966 CE) was the first to notice galaxies were either tinted blue or red. Thus, he deduced light was cast from these galaxies like sound traveling from a car to a person standing still (as in the Doppler Effect). When a car approaches a person standing still the sound is low but when the car passes by the pitch becomes higher. Light, Lemaître deduced, must also change when it is traveling towards and away from us, i.e. if a galaxy was “blue-shifted” it was flying away from the Milky Way but if it was “red-shifted” then that galaxy was flying towards us. Deduction, as illustrated in the example above, can be quite a powerful tool; however, it is not without its problems.

Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109 CE) was an important scholastic and theologian who was responsible for creating something fancy called the “ontological argument” for the existence of God. The word ontology has Greek roots and is roughly equivalent to the English word necessity. Anselm deduced that it was necessary God exist. He reasoned that he could picture the most perfect and powerful being in his mind. The only way this was possible was if God actually existed (because, Anselm argued, the concept of a God had to point to the object God). In other words, it was necessary God exist because otherwise a concept of this being would not be possible. The problem with Anselm’s argument is it is easily disproven. Another thinker came along about 150 years later named William of Ockham (1285-1347 CE). William, like Anselm, was a theologian and worked for the Church. William, however, unlike Anselm was not made a saint by the Catholic Church. Instead, William was persecuted for doing things like absolutely disproving Anselm’s proof for the existence God. Specifically, William reasoned he could conceive in his mind of the most perfect and powerful unicorn; however, he concluded that just because he had a concept of a unicorn in his mind this didn’t necessarily mean the unicorn actually existed; and that’s the problem with scholasticism, really: it was never based on evidence, it was based on a series of self-reinforcing assumptions about reality.

In the 17th century, the Church was successfully challenged by scientists and philosophers. Science represented a new way of looking at the world. The scholastics looked at the world spiritually; they explained the word spiritually. Scientists looked at the world materialistically and explained physical reality by appealing to laws of nature rather than to a God pulling strings behind the scenes. Scientists didn’t rely on revealed truth like scholastics; rather, they literally tested their assumptions against physical reality; it was the work of early scientists, like Galileo Galilei (1564-1642 CE) and Isaac Newton (1643-1727 CE), who nudged science in the direction of finding patterns in nature; and from these patterns they developed laws like the Law of Gravity, the Law of Planetary Motion and the Laws of Thermodynamics. The Church was also challenged by modern philosophy because philosophers like Rene Descartes (1596-1650 CE) and John Locke (1632-1704 CE) encouraged people to “doubt systematically.” When someone doubts systematically they ask a series of questions, and conduct a series of logical tests, to determine whether or not a belief is valid or if it is fallacious. The best philosophers, like Descartes and Locke, also used scientific knowledge to inform their thinking. This is because intellectuals were more focused on finding patterns in nature, patterns in human societies, etc. and from these drawing conclusions about their meaning and significance. Scholastics, on the other hand, started with the meaning and significance and then explained what they saw.

Humanist philosophers used logic and deduction, as well. However, while scholastics designed arguments simply to defend Church teachings and authority, humanists were motivated out of a genuine desired to describe and understand truth for its own sake. This doesn’t mean humanists did not believe in God; on the contrary, virtually every humanist, scientist and philosopher during the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment periods believed in God. God wasn’t in question. The Church’s doctrines, teachings and authority were; and the Catholic Church’s authority gradually grew weaker and weaker over time.

_____________________
[1] Testing something empirically means testing it by means of observation or experience rather than through theory or pure logic.

[2] When we only have a little bit of information we use deduction to work from what little we do know to create a larger picture. The problem with this approach is it requires a lot of imagination and basically no testing or experimentation. Aristotle, for example, used deduction to explain why objects “fell” downwards. He didn’t appeal to the existence of gravity but instead deduced it is in the nature of an object to “want” to fall down. The strange thing about thinkers before the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution is they believed objects actually had intentionality, e.g. magnets were explained as not being attracted due to a force called magnetism but that they had “souls” that sought one another out.

We Have a Choice

Sobering. So we have a choice: democratically and as voluntarily as possible make the ‘Great Transition’ to a post-carbon based economy (and grow our economy in that direction, ie. hey conservatives we can still grow an economy, jobs, etc. through renewables…it is possible…fossil fuels aren’t the only way (look up ‘false dichotomy)) or we can maintain the status-quo and coast blindly in to a future fraught with risk where governments will be forced to take Draconian measures to limit our climate impact.

What little room/time we had to maneuver gradually to a solution has been lost. If we would have taken climate change seriously in the 90s (which scientists did as corporations spent money on media campaigns to obfuscate the issue and confuse the public to prevent action) we would have ultimately been in a better position to make the transition we need to make today.

You do not have to be a psychic to read the future. You just need to be scientifically literate.

http://www.iflscience.com/environment/what-would-happen-climate-if-we-stopped-emitting-greenhouse-gases-today/

The Continued Influence of Ancient Greece

Belief in the “supernatural ” belongs to a “bygone era” (along with the belief in ghosts or that ideas exist outside of mind.) The very act of entertaining the existence of ghosts reflects the continued influence of pre-scientific, mythological thinking on the present; and despite the privileged position reason, logic and science currently occupy, Western culture appears incapable of entirely shedding its ancient skin, e.g. we still call our galaxy the Milky Way even though no one believes in the existence of the goddess Hera; while continuing to entertain the idea of mind-body dualism despite advances in neuroscience which quite satisfactorily describe consciousness—“ideas” if you will—as an emergent quality born out of the complex physical workings of the human brain. There is still a minority of neuroscientists who entertain the notion consciousness implies that the sum of the brain’s parts alone do not satisfactorily explain consciousness; nevertheless, this is a minority position and the neuroscience community appears to have made peace with the fact a physical explanation agrees with observation. Or to invoke Ockham’s Razor the mechanistic explanation definitely makes far fewer assumptions than the idealist explanation does.

So, no brain? No ideas. Yet, an argument can be made ideas potentially exist, i.e. ‘truth’ and ‘beauty’ do not exist “out there” as in some sort of Platonic form; however, it is quite reasonable to suppose—and I’ve heard various philosophers and scientists seriously consider this hypothesis—that once an appropriate mechanism evolves (like the brain, for example) consciousness and then ideas inevitably follow. So, in a sense, ideas exist independent of mind as something potential rather than actual; they just need a host in the same sense a bow needs an archer to pull the string.

Why do people continue to entertain beliefs in things like soul, spirit, idealism, mind-body dualism though? There are a combination of factors but I would appeal first and foremost to Thomas Paine’s explanation, i.e. the long habit of thinking a thing true gives it the superficial appearance of being right.

People have thought these things exist or are true for so long the culture has literally succumbed to a sort of organic or inherited “argument from antiquity”. The reason you appear to even entertain idealism (and by extension mind-body dualism) is Western culture–to which you belong–was shaped considerably by Hellenistic thought. From the Greeks we inherited some useful ways of looking at the world and some not so useful. For example, from the rationalist Thales we inherit the idea that we can explain what happens in the natural world (like a volcano erupting or lightning striking) by appealing to natural causes (or mechanisms) rather explaining these things by saying Hephaestus or Zeus are angry. We also inherited the assumption that souls, spirit and mind exist independent of the body. Plato, as I mentioned previously, even went so far as to claim, as you’ve entertained, ideas exist “out there” objectively and that the so-called “mind’s eye” perceived them. The problem with idealism, souls, gods, mind-eyes, etc. is there’s no reason (no evidence) to suppose any of it reflects the way the world actually works. Gods, etc. were all constructed from common sense deductions—based on the assumptions of the time—that offered a pseudo-scientific explanation satisfying the ancient Greeks. Nobody told the inheritors of Greeks (us), however, that not only could we drop belief in gods but also assumptions about souls and objective ideas, as well.

 

The Problem With Refugees

We are a nation of immigrants; it’s a fact: go back far enough every single one of us—European, African, Asian, even First Nations and Inuit—can trace their origins to somewhere other than Canada. Humanity explores, it puts down roots and calls wherever it happens to end up home. People attach a lot of importance to their home; this is where they raise their families, form their worldview, worship, work, play and build a life for themselves. Thus, it isn’t terribly surprising when we encounter strangers living among us one of our first instincts is to become defensive as opposed to open.

Canadians might be awfully polite but they certainly aren’t immune to xenophobia or fear. There were three major waves of Irish immigration to British North America: the first came around the time of the American Revolution in the 1780s; the second took place during the 1840s when a potato famine drove approximately 1.5 million Irish Catholics to Canada. My ancestors on my father’s side arrived in the United States during the third wave in the 1890s; they established a farm somewhere in the American Midwest eventually moving north to Canada to take advantage of free land on offer in the Canadian West. In all three cases, the Irish were not generally well-received: in the context of both Canada and the United States, English Protestants felt threatened by the sudden influx of non-English Catholics to their countries.

The Irish were thankful for the opportunities afforded to them by their adoptive countries; nevertheless, inevitably their presence elicited negative reactions among Americans and Canadians alike. Newcomers always force us into uncomfortable spaces by challenging us to re-evaluate ourselves and our priorities; they compel us to ask questions around what it means to be a people and a nation. In the present day, some of us are responding as well as can be expected to Syrian refugees (and, more recently, to others groups escaping to Canada because of an uncertain future in the United States). Most of our problems when it comes to dealing constructively with one another is the result of a certain inability to empathize with one another. The people best responding to the recent influx of refugees are those capable of seeing something of themselves in these new immigrants—people displaced by famine, war, and repression in their home countries; yet, there are others of us who aren’t responding so well: ironically, some Canadians on social media are using the self-same arguments against Syrians that previous generations used against their own Irish, Norwegian, Swedish, German and Ukrainian ancestors, e.g. these people aren’t like us; they didn’t work for what we have; we owe them nothing; they’re wrecking the country; everything was so much better before they came; they’re stealing our jobs; they’re lazy, smell, speak funny, and don’t look like us real Canadians.

The idea of a real Canadian versus a fake one is a strange concept to me; it’s not like we can freeze time and say there, back in the 1820s (November to be exact) during the colonial period, that is what Canadians should strive to be, we should all be white, English Protestant United Empire Loyalists; or wait it’s 1867 and Canadians can be French Catholic now, just not too French, but it’s tolerated; or it’s 1945 and the end of World War II, England is less important to us and out of compassion we’re welcoming Hungarians and other dispossessed persons to Canada because they need our help, we didn’t like them so much in 1905 but times have changed; or it’s 1965 and we have a new flag and First Nations peoples are no longer willing to be second-class citizens and the majority of Canada’s immigrants are from Africa and Asia and, without us even realizing it, we’ve moved from biculturalism to multiculturalism. We didn’t even notice the change (and certainly didn’t plan it). But we are, and will continue to be, a multicultural society whether critics like it or not.

Friedrich Nietzsche observed humanity is in essentially a continuous state of revolution (or paradigm change); we don’t recognize these changes because what once appeared as revolutionary eventually becomes the basis of a new normal. Thus, a Canadian born in 1840 naturally answers the question “What is a Canadian?” differently than say one born in 1867, 1919, 1945, 1965, 1995, or 2017. If there’s a standard definition of what constitutes a true Canadian, it’s a floating one and it definitely isn’t as simple as saying it is someone who is white, English-speaking, and Christian. With that said, the recent wave of Syrian immigration to Canada is taking place during a time of significant stress: the recovery of the global economy from the shock it received during the Great Recession (2009) is still in doubt and we continue living with its legacy, e.g. wealth continues to become increasingly concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, Canadians and Americans are becoming more and more desperate because of a sense of financial insecurity, and where the economy goes so too goes our seeming capacity to practice tolerance and pluralism; also, we are also confronted by the specter of climate change and an inability to deal with it effectively or its secondary effects, e.g. 21.5 million people are currently displaced worldwide and considered climate change refugees (some of whom are seeking refuge in North America and Europe); this number is bound to grow as climate change’s effects become increasingly severe and ubiquitous; and right wing political movements—secular and religious—are growing in popularity as though we’re taking part in some sort of macabre replay or dress rehearsal for World War III; given all that’s going on it’s little wonder so many people have such mixed feelings about helping strange Syrian refugees when existing Canadians themselves don’t feel secure enough about their own or their children’s futures.[1]

So where does this leave us? I suppose at one of those revolutionary periods Nietzsche mentioned. The great irony is we possess all the knowledge and understanding to solve every single one of our problems; yet, it seems we’re doomed to repeat past mistakes instead of learning from them because of a fundamental lack of collective character or imagination to conceive of new ways of living with and treating one another. There’s not much historical precedent when it comes to nations or societies becoming selfless or other-centered in times of significant economic downturn, political upheaval or when confronted by an existential crisis as significant as climate change. However, I would argue we can use how we eventually decide to treat refugees and immigrants as a litmus test for our future prospects. Some political theorists argue history is on the side of democracy. I like the sentiment but I would add the following caveat: history is on the side of those who want to survive. The great irony is most people think survival means circling our wagons, siding with the tribe and pushing strangers out. The truth is the world is a much smaller place in 2017 than it was in 1917. For this reason, I believe, if we’re going to survive we’re going to have to find ways to do it together; it’ll be cooperation not competition that’ll determine humankind’s direction and whether there’ll be a Canada or a United States for future generations to immigrate to.

 

Notes
[1]
http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/syrian-refugees-poll-trump-1.3988716