Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Dogma and Ignorance—
Squib of the Day, November 24th, 2010:

Charles Darwin
 "Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science. "
—Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man (1871)

Bronowski at Auschwitz
 "This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance, it was done by dogma, it was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave."
—Jacob Bronowski (1908-1974), The Ascent of Man (1973)

Thomas Kuhn
There is, of course, no guarantee that knowledge will insure wisdom, and wisdom is, of course, more than just a conglomeration of scientific facts. And often we encounter same infuriating arrogance and dogmatic narrow-mindedness blinding scientists and layman alike to their own irrational faith in an outmoded idea until the overwhelming preponderance of evidence causes them to switch faiths, as it were—either that or they gradually die off to be replaced by those with younger and more flexible minds. In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn, unintentionally creating one of the most misused terms in the language, called such a switch of scientific allegiance a "paradigm shift."

Galileo Galilei
 Sometimes such a shift can take a while to become the new paradigm—Kuhn gives the example of the Copernican Revolution which proposed the heretical idea that the earth revolved around the sun. The confirmation of that idea with a telescope by Galileo resulted in his being threatened with torture and tossed into the hoosegow for life.* But sometimes the shift occurs with remarkable speed. Darwin's idea of Natural Selection, for example, was recognized as explaining the diversity of life on our planet better than any hypothesis that came before and was quickly accepted as probable by most everyone—scientist and layperson alike—who actually read On the Origin of Species, rather than acquiring an adulterated version from the pulpit on Sunday.

Outside of a few theocratic states—and, in Peter Watson's phrase "except for one or two embarrassing 'creationist' enclaves in certain rural areas of the United States"—the idea of natural selection is firmly established. We might argue that Watson greatly underestimates the number of such enclaves in the U.S., but we agree with his characterization of them as embarrassing. Perhaps they are the last remaining holdouts from a paradigm shift that occurred in most of the modern world a century and a half ago.

John Scopes
 It has been eighty-five years since John Scopes was found guilty of teaching evolution in a science class in Dayton Tennessee But even in 1925 many moderate Christians maintained that evolution was not inconsistent with their faith in God. They lost out that day to a fearful dogmatic fundamentalist view that evolution was a direct attack on Christianity by those they would now brand secular humanists. The courts since have usually sided with Scopes and maintained that creationism (or it's more modern name: intelligent design) is not science and should be taught as such. But as a consequence, many school districts have decided that the best compromise is to not teach either creationism or evolution. And unfortunately such a compromise is not confined to one or two embarrassing enclaves.

But perhaps there is something else at work here.

Copernicus's view of
the cosmos. It would take
Isaac Newton to figure
out the circles should
be ellipses.
 The late Harvard biologist, Stephen Jay Gould, coined the cumbersome term "non-overlapping magisteria" to describe the separate domains of science and religion. But the historical record (and Galileo's imprisonment) shows that they frequently do overlap. Science is practiced by human beings who, despite rigorous indoctrination in the scientific method, find it impossible leave all their prejudices and preconceptions at the laboratory door. Science is not quite so pure and isolated from the prejudices of the day as is often claimed. In order to advance, science demands a kind of faith that is similar to religion. It was difficult 1610 to give up the Ptolemaic cycles and epicycles of planets and stars required to explain an earth-centered view of the cosmos, but eventually someone turned a telescope to the sky and saw moons revolving around Jupiter and the moonlike phases of Venus, and Copernicus won the day.

In the video below, Bronowski quotes Oliver Cromwell's famous line "I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken." And that is the difference between pure science and pure fundamentalism. Fundamentalism by it's very nature is unquestioning and intolerant. If it thinks it possible it may be mistaken it is no longer fundamentalism, but a more moderate and modern conception of God and our place in the universe. Science, on the other hand, must continually doubt itself. The latest paradigm shift is just that: the latest.

The following video is a clip from the thirteen-part BBC production The Ascent of Man, written and featuring Jacob Bronowski.
Viewing time 4 minutes 21 seconds:

*Readers who are sticklers for accuracy will object to our saying that Galileo was thrown in the hoosegow. And they are correct: he was placed under house arrest for the rest of his life. But we at the Goombah are enamoured of the word hoosegow and try to insert it in posts whenever we can.


mtedone said...

What about the faith gene? Many people are heavily imbued with it and already have their pathway to God; just like some people are born without ear lobes, those poor souls without the faith gene really have a tough slog getting to God.
Quantum mechanics says that the act of observing an experiment affects it, alters the outcome. Pity the poor scientist, he must calculate the effect of his observance on his experiment.
It boils down to perspective; each one of us has his/her own unique perspective which makes us each a little different than our peers.

Thanks to an overactive faith gene the fundamentalist comes across as intolerant from an objective perspective, but he's wholly rational from ihs faith imbued perspective.

Ultimately reason and the scientific method win, because you can't fool all of the people all of the time.


Post a Comment