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Dec 22 2008

This post is a continuation of The Religious Roots of Science

Sincere and Insincere attacks on Science
I suggest one can classify attacks on the authority of science along an axis of sincerity. Insincere attacks are those that merely aim at undermining science to replace it with their own even worse justified belief system. To this end of the spectrum belong Christians like Bill O’Reily that try to argue that as long as science does not have all the answers he will stick to the old teaching. This kind of criticism is irrelevant and can be dismissed since it just tries to hide the basic message behind a load of hot air, namely that “I don’t care what you say [insert expletive], I will stick to what I already got”. They can never be proven wrong, and feel no need to justify their position with genuine reasons. At the same time we are supposed to respect their belief in talking snakes and virgin births, and not make any jokes about their prophets.

To this end of the spectrum also belong relativists that claim that science is just another belief system, and as such has no greater authority than any other. All views of the world, whether traditional or modern, are equally true. The insincerity of this position stems from the allusion to its own authority and how it is supposed to be somehow exempt from this criticism. I don’t think there are many sincere relativists in the academic world, since everyone that claims something does, implicitly or explicitly, believe in their own authority over someone else’s.  

There is of course also sincere criticism that can be dismissed as irrelevant because it is ignorant, nonsensical or just comical. An example of this could be the feminist Irigaray claim that E=M*C2 is a sexed equation because speed somehow is a masculine attribute. Or the Sokal hoax where a fake article was submitted to a post-modern journal by a physicist, just to see how much bollocks would be printed.

The danger of insincere critics is that they fight dirty. Insincere people don’t hesitate to twist the words of their opponents. The fact that insincerity still dominates the world I think goes a long way to explain the Darwinian Richard Dawkins political choice of “militant atheism”. In  one recent interview he claimed that science had about 95% of the answers to the ultimate human questions, and that it was working on the last 5%. That is a religious or metaphysical statement since there is no way he can know how much knowledge we will, can or even do possess.

In this interview however, I think Dawkins is getting close to being sincere about his faith in science. Anyone knows that being on the defensive often produces a bias, and while Dawkins enemies may be not just inclined towards their faith, but more like spun around it like a cat caught with the tail in the bicycle wheel, he himself is not exempt from this criticism.

The Church of Reason
I would like to outline some criticism that I think is both valid and sincere, that shows that science fundamentally will always have an element of religion in it. I distinguish between the scientific attitude, which adheres to the scientific criteria for knowledge, such as empiricism, accountability, impartiality, rationality, falsifiability, testability etc. and the religious attitude, which is the willingness to hold on to unproved beliefs for emotional benefit or practical necessity. Seeing is Believing vs Believing is Seeing. My point is that these two attitudes are two sides of being human, and they necessarily coexist in all of us - even in Prof. Dawkins.

1. The Rational Delusion - The basis of rationality is always irrational

Rationality as abstract deduction always begins with a set of premisses and is confined to language. It has been proven rationally all the way from Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason up to Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem and later Wittgenstein that rationality can never become a complete system. It will always depend of some basic axioms, both linguistically, logically and epistemologically. It can say that if statement A is true then statement B is true, but how do the statements get their meaning? From the interpretation of them by person X in language L. Language needs consciousness and culture to have meaning, and while statements can be translated to other languages they ultimately only have meaning to us humans. Concepts mean something by pointing to something other than themselves, some object in the world or another statement perhaps. Even if we could construct a pure and exact logical language where every concept was unambiguous, like the logical positivists dreamt, all concepts still could not derive their meaning from other terms. The basic concepts had to be defined ostensively, by showing what they meant, eg.  like holding up a glass to a child and saying “glass”.

The dream of a complete scientific language is based on the belief that humans can perceive everything that exists.

The dream of a complete scientific language is based on the belief that humans can perceive everything that exists, or at least that from what we can perceive we will be able to deduce all the rest. But we cannot know the limits of our own perceptive apparatus, because we can never get outside of our own bodies. Nor can we know for sure what other beings, human or otherwise, can and cannot perceive. We always perceive them through our own eyes and the limits of our nervous system. There is nothing irrational with an assumption that our perceived reality is one of many that may exist side by side and perhaps they have been rigged by a demon in such a way that neither our senses nor our intelligence will ever be able to grasp them. There could be a whole brass band of ghosts stomping away in a parallel dimension that we could never have the faintest idea about. We could be cosmically fooled and no amount of science can ever prove that wrong. This is why Descartes felt a need to invoke God exactly as the guarantor that he was not deluded by his senses. By doing away with The God Delusion Dawkins does not even have this consoling basis to lean back on. Not that I think he is left any worse off.

2. The limitations of the superficial sensory universe

Empirical science has a successful track record of explaining the world, but in a sense it has not only limited itself to that which could be attacked with its method, but also tried to limit the world to be only that which could be seen through this method. Almost all sciences are based on the experimental ideal of physics, and even in psychology there are many ridiculous attempts at applying this mathematical model on humans. This example is from Research Design Explained, (Mitchell & Jolley, 1992), where the authors teach us about love:

“Rafael Frank’s (1984) theory of love tells us how love can and cannot be measured. …”

           liking*maturity            sexual attraction
Love = ———————— *20*  ————————
dependency                         age

A formula like that exposes the parody that is academic psychology. Under the banner of “objectivity” and with a shield of statistics the quantitative researcher is proudly presenting his scientific results while the subject matter of his discipline has escaped through the back door and he is left with a pseudo-science with less substance than numerology. There is nothing wrong with numbers and statistics, but they only deal with the superficial, and a social researcher only dealing in that area is more like a tailor measuring an arm for a suit than someone contributing to the genuine understanding of what it means to be human. Sorry to be the one to break it, but no one really wears their heart on their sleeve, it is just a metaphor that should not be taken literally. I have nothing against tailors, but when it comes to interpreting human behaviour and human needs even cab drivers have more of value to say. If the problem of having a clear and simple language that represents easily identifiable objects is a challenge for natural science, it is immensely much more so for the social sciences. You cannot construct a scientific/logical/mathematical language by pretending the elementary concepts are obvious. There are no subjective or cultural facts that tell their own story without interpretation. Say we thought we loved someone only to later realize that guilt was what we really felt. Perhaps months later we again reinterpret the past and find that it was indeed profound love. The above formula will tell us nothing about what we actually have gone through. It pretends to be talking about love, but it is really talking about X as the outcome of whatever other factors you put into the equation. To understand ourselves, other people and human artifacts we must interpret, not just measure surfaces. We give love meaning, just like we give all subjective phenomena meaning. Likewise, cultural artifacts only have meaning to us. Money is only money because for a limited time in history we say it is.

There is no God that guarantees that there is a successful “scientific method” in the subjective and inter-subjective domain just because there was one in the natural sciences. When trying to understand humans and human artifacts it is not at all clear what is scientific and what is not, but operating with this inferiority complex of physics psychology as a science is dead. 

3. Our understanding of ourselves is limited to our metaphors

It has been said that what is uniquely human is our ability to understand something in terms of something else. For us a piece of paper can symbolise value. We learn the meaning of words from the world around us, and then we try to apply them to ourselves. Our language is full to the brim of spatial metaphors we don’t even reflect “over”, and we talk about our mind as being “inside” our head,  we “let someone in”, we are “superficial” or “deep”, we put ourselves “above” others and so on. Of course the mind is not “inside” the head, nor is the world “outside”. These are metaphors we have borrowed from the perceived world (or Euclidean geometry more precisely) because we cannot see ourselves “from above”.

Our understanding of ourselves is limited to the metaphors we have borrowed from the physical world.

It became very fashionable to talk about “the computational mind” and that the brain was a computer. Again, it was just because we found a new metaphor to use. But take three people, and let one of them be you. For science the fact that one of them is you makes no difference at all to any equation or theory. From a scientific perspective, even using subjective enquiry and phenomenology, the fact that one of those three is you is nonexistent. Why? Because we have no metaphor for being oneself. I don’t even think there can be such a metaphor, and it does not feature as a concept in language that I can think of. It is an example of something curious that is both experiential and fully familiar (metaphor) to everyone, yet outside normal language and the scientific method. And what about pure awareness? Is there anything else like it? Some things cannot be put into words. Sometimes it is beacause we cannot point to anything common and tangible to explain it, a specific sense of nostalgia provoked by a fragrance on a Spring walk for instance. But sometimes it is because whatever it is that produces words, is itself part of the universe. In the beginning there was absolutely not the word (to twist the Bible) as the words came quite a bit later and are but tiny parts of existence. Metaphorically speaking the rational faculty is stuck inside the basic Kantian categories like the brain is stuck inside the skull. To claim there is nothing outside language, outside our symbols and metaphors, is both naïve and a sign of grandiose hubris. Everything that appears irrational is not necessarily more primitive than rationality - it may be beyond it – not prerational but transrational. Who promised us that the mind ever be able to understand the mind? God!?

4. Science’ failure to give itself a scientific basis

All this leads up to the conclusion that science as an enterprise is yet another human project, while in many ways superior to previous efforts still very much bound to the limitations of being human. Humanity as a species will disappear one day, and with it science and its theories. Why would the theories of today be the true ones? Science itself cannot answer this, let alone religion. As long as there is no science of psychology there is no science of science. When listening to scientists like Dawkins one gets the impression that science itself is separate from all other human activities and somehow exempt from the need to explain itself as a phenomenon, but it isn’t. Why would human beings be able to get a true understanding of the universe? Science always gets into trouble when it tries to explain its own existence. One can say that the senses and reason are superior to other means of obtaining knowledge of the world, but one cannot use these means themselves to underpin this epistemological claim. One can point to practical and technological superiority yes, but one will never be able to obtain objective scientific knowledge about the minds relationship to the world. It would be like a camera trying to photograph itself or a thought trying to think about itself. However much science strives to arrive at the “view from nowhere” it will always remain our view. It threw out God and now there is no epistemological foundation to appeal to. Its hands are tied.

5. Since religion still exists does it not have survival value? 

According to Dawkins there is both a genetic and memetic evolution – the latter being the considerably faster cultural evolution that happens without any significant genetic mutations. Memetic evolution happens in the form of memes, or cultural elements, ideas, inventions, words, images, etc. all these things that make up culture and that can replicate themselves and spread. Science itself thus belongs to the memetic evolution. An essential element of Dawinian evolution is the idea that anything that remains in natural selection has survival value. Dawkins believes in the survival value of truth, and he is the first to admit that. However, the fact that religion is a universal cultural constant throughout the world for most known history raises the question about the survival value of delusions. Nietzsche was a Darwinian and while he strongly criticized Christianity, he was quick to point out that illusions can have great survival value. (And he did knock out a few of his own.) In natural selection of belief systems in the memesoup, science is not the inevitable survivor. While science may provide enough fascination for affluent rational people, for many the choice is not between truth and illusion, but between hope and disillusion. The need for purpose and hope might be stronger than the desire for intellectual sincerity and truth. If science wins over religious myths, ironically enough it won’t be because of its relative truth value, but on the merits of satisfying our existential needs. If it wins it might be simply because it is the best illusion we have hitherto constructed.

Morally speaking, science tries to describe what is, but what ought to be is essentially an extra-rational, and therefore extra-scientific matter.

One cannot derive an ought from an is.

One cannot derive an ought from an is. Looking at the world from the detached scientific point of view there is no scientific reason to care one way or the other what happens to mankind. Again, the fact that we happen to be us does not make any difference to the equations. If your goals were to exploit and destroy you could use scientific methods and technology and achieve this with utmost rational efficiency. For society at large it is quite possible that a degree of delusion is healthy and that a society without Hell or any Supreme Good could turn not only morally twisted but self-destructive. What is happening in Russia for example, a country that has lost its faith in both God and ideology? Why is it now trying to reinvigorate a nationalistic myth and hailing Stalin as the greatest Russian ever? Is this a desperate search for faith in something? Anything, even a mass-murdering dictator? Why myths exist is not a logical but a psycho-logical question. Why does the concept disillusion not have a positive ring? A degree of self-delusion may be essential to mental health and the rational thing to do, if one wanted to be happy and good, may be to partially live a lie. After all, it is inevitable as the ultimate illusion is the belief that one is beyond all illusions.

Can the idea that science is superior to religion at organising society be tested empirically? Is Dawkins belief that a “mythless life” is somehow superior to a ”religious life” a scientific hypothesis, i.e. falsifiable? Religiously inspired violence comes to mind as simple examples in support of such a thesis, but isn’t science equally vulnerable to some such arguments? Looking at history, was not the Stalinist dream of a scientific Utopia just such a test? It was not Moses in the desert that invented the nuke or the psychological experiments of brainwashing performed by the CIA. It is in the choice of evidence religious bias shows itself. Dawkins says that he is not aware of any evidence that prove that a rationally based culture is any more moral than a traditional religious based culture, but he just “doesn’t want to live a lie”. If he is not aware of any evidence why does he not scientifically explore it? Not wanting to live a lie is a religious ideal as good or bad as any, but before imposing it on others should he not investigate the psychological and sociopolitical implications thereof? Maybe a “mythless life” is better for him, but how would he even test that? It is not like he can become religious for a day just to see. There is recent research to support that the God delusion may make people more moral and function better in society. Studies suggest that “belief in God encourages people to be helpful, honest and generous“. Who benefits from a scientific mindset? What societies are mature enough for it? While one can derive any type of morality one wishes from natural science – because there is none obligatory - hedonistic nihilism is definitely near at hand, and technology in the hands of hedonistic nihilists might ultimately lead to our demise. While cave people did not individually live as long as we do, they might end up having been here much longer than we ever will.

Ultimately science has no transcendental epistemological basis to offer itself, and while that makes it rationally inconsistent that is hardly a question that would keep people awake at night. The practical question of science vs religion is more important. I don’t think Dawkins is scientific enough about his own belief in science. I think he is much like an android finding a cable sticking out from its head and not understanding what it is for is wondering whether to unplug it. Until one clearly understands our need for religion simply trying to jerk the cable might do more harm than good. It is hard for a rational mind to believe in fairy tales, and to understand people that need them, but ultimately there are things beyond even the rational mind and its ken. Religion is not all about God, it is also about the Highest Good. How do you replace God with a secular Good? What does Darwin’s self-proclaimed pit bull know about this Brave New World? Well, nothing as it would be an evolutionary ermergence never seen before in human history. On what should this God-like intervention in the course of humanity be based so as to prevent this mutation in the memesphere turn out a freak? A hunch?!

I don’t know. What do you think? Please leave comments.

Dec 21 2008

I think science needs to be understood historically as a reaction against religious epistemology. It was, and still is, a struggle against irrational authority and faulty reasoning. Throughout Western intellectual history it is hard to find thinkers and philosophers that were not religious, and whatever separates science from religion there is bound to be more in common as they are both human quests to answer the big questions.

Learning from Experience
Both extremely religious and extremely scientific people are human – comes as a surprise doesn’t it?! Point is that humans like all other animals learn from experience, whether we want to or not. I do believe that the religious and the scientific attitudes to life are complementary, and coexist in us, but humour me for a moment and allow me to sketch them out as opposite extremes. For a person with the religious attitude it is impossible to have a mistaken belief in God or more specifically how God manifests himself in daily life. The belief in a God is an emotional attachment and daily experiences will only be allowed to either confirm it or be irrelevant to it. This denial however only works up to a point. Some previously religious people can no longer cling on to their beliefs when confronted with extreme evil or injustice, hence the emotional benefit derived from the religious belief no longer compensates for the cost of turning a blind eye to those painful parts of human experience that contradict a belief in Divine Justice and Providence. Historically this challenge to faith goes under the name the Theodicy problem, and it has given rise to many desperate attempts at defending the essentially anti-empirical belief in God. The Devil with a Tail manifests himself when a Christian has been beaten literally sense-less by life itself. In this sense even a desperate believer is a reluctant empiricist, forced by an experiential anomaly to find a new hypothesis to explain and justify the validity of the original belief. The empiricists would only bring this natural animalistic ability to learn from experience to the fore and hail it as the supreme source of knowledge.

Numerology as a Proto-science
Rationality, in the sense of an ability to draw conclusions from premisses, is neither an invention of science nor exclusive to science. “7 is a sacred number and everything in nature is made up of 7. As there are 7 orifices in the head, 7 notes in the musical scale, 7 colours in the rainbow there are 7 planets orbiting the earth.” This kind of reasoning was seen as valid in the Christian tradition, and while the premiss that there are sacred numbers may be false it is still an attempt at drawing some kind of rational conclusion based on an assumption. Numerology is an example of rationalised mythology, and is another way Christianity is close to its alleged opposite Occultism, and the mysticism of Pythagoras, the Jewish Kabbalah and Islamic ilm al-huroof.  (“…it is still common today in some Islamic cultures for potential in-laws to analyze the numerical values associated with the letters of a man and woman’s names to see if the couple will make a suitable match.”)

Science was driven by force away from the subjective to have a chance to survive at all against oppressive irrationality.

It is an attempt at using the rational faculty to find the patterns that connect, and to make predictions thereof.  In a way it can be thought of as proto-science; It has an assumption and to verify it it is searching for evidence that supports it. It is an exclusively corroborative effort, meaning it is only looking to confirm and elaborate some basic ideas, namely that there are sacred numbers and that God arranged the world accordingly. Any example that supports the theory is counted, and anything that contradicts is ignored. In this sense the theory can never be mistaken and it shows why verifiability is insufficient as a scientific ideal. You can find an infinite amount of things that can be grouped into seven it will never prove that seven is a sacred number, nor that there will be exactly seven of something as of yet unknown. The brain is wired to see patterns in things and do what we may we cannot avoid it. We often see meaningful coincidences and synchronicities as evidence of higher purpose and destiny. When this healthy and natural tendency takes delusional forms it is called apophenia, and schizophrenics often claim to see conspiracies and meaningful connections where sane people see only a random events or a bunch things. But this ability to see patterns and to make generalisations from experience is the basis for all empirical knowledge, and again science is just a refined form.

The origin of Accountability – The Rational Debate
If we could not make mistakes and if the world was a simple thing all would be peace and harmony, but alas even within the religious traditions all around the world there would be debates about how to interpret experiences, scriptures, and what predictions were the correct ones. From these disagreements would naturally spring some kind of criteria of accountability, i.e. a demand to be able to give a reason for one’s belief or interpretation. If two people argue and both think they are right, while they might both be mistaken, it is likely that the argumentative energy will dig out a bigger epistemic hole by pushing each other and trying to prove the other wrong. This is only guesswork on my part but I think that the demand for accountability which is central to science comes from these traditional disagreements. From debates would come some norms about what is a justified belief and while there have been many different epistemological school “meta-debating” what qualifies as a justification, gradually having no justification for a belief at all would leave the contender out of the game so to speak. Today this ideal has evolved into the basis for the academic discourse, and it is a pillar of Wikipedia. A contributer says: ”Wikipedia is both an encyclopedia and a community devoted to producing this encyclopedia. An encyclopedia is a corpus of fact, not opinion, not mystic truths. Thus our community must abide within Pirsig’s “Church of Reason” as an academic entity. Logic and rationality alone set the standard for what we do here. To refuse to discuss a topic squarely—to refuse to look the bull straight in the eye—is to forgo all consideration.

Questions of the validity of some authority only arise when there are conflicting views, each claiming authority. It has always been dangerous to oppose authority, and to question faith still today means running the risk of receiving a death threat. That many Muslims have no sense of humour is not a joke if you are a Danish cartoonist. One of the motivations for the scientific ideal of impartiality and objectivity can be understood historically in the context of conflicting interpretations within religious traditions, but also as a necessary neutral hiding grounds for heretics like Copernicus and Galilei. If you risk being beheaded you want to make it a question about the world and not about subjective opinion. You don’t want to be personally responsible for the earth not being at the centre of the universe. Impartiality, objectivity, verifiability, testability, reproducibility – all of these are scientific ideals that probably have religious precursors from times of conflicting “powerdimes”. But apart from generating more reliable knowledge about the material universe I think they can be understood as protections against power abuse.

Religion gave rise to science, but bad religion gave rise to bad science.

Science was driven by force away from the subjective to have a chance to survive at all against oppressive irrationality. It had to limit itself to explaining and establishing demonstrative facts, but all reality might not want to wear that dress. Value neutrality, objectivity and impartiality work very well in physics, but not necessarily in social science and humanities. To simplify, religion gave rise to science, but bad religion gave rise to bad science. This, I think, is one of the reasons why science still has not be able to replace neither religion nor ideology as the definitive authority in today’s society.    

How Science is not Religion
Science came out of religion and philosophy, and is still struggling to assert its separate identity. Religion is also learning from experience, albeit somewhat reluctantly. It is making generalizations from basic observations and seeks to verify them. It is making predictions about the future. What then is the difference between science and religion? Apart from it having developed those learning abilities it inherited from its religious past, and having self-consciously tried to sacrifice the ballast of irrational authority of holy books etc, the essential difference I think is captured in Popper’s falsifiability criterion.

A belief is only scientific in so far as there is something we can experience that can prove it wrong.

A belief is only scientific in so far as there is something we can experience that can prove it wrong. As long as a belief that can be proven wrong stands the test of time it can be considered true, or rather nearer to truth than its opponent, i.e. have verisimilitude. The beauty of this idea is that it captures a fundamental asymmetry in our knowledge of the world, namely that we cannot know the truth but we can know what is a lie. Popper was, I think, the first to point out that while we cannot prove a proposition true with any number of observations to support it we can prove it false with a single observation in contra. A numerologist can find new examples of seven every day but it will never prove that nature favours seven over twelve or two or whatever. According to this idea of what scientific knowledge is, the hypothesis that nature favours seven is unscientific and basically unknowable due to how it is formulated. If one said instead that “everything in nature is made up of seven” one could easily prove it wrong by picking up one stone. Falsifiability thus gives us something extremely precious, namely a criterion to help distinguish between the knowable and the unknowable. Science should devote itself to the knowable, and religion the unknowable.

Science still on the defensive
The idea that science should deal with the knowable and religion with the unknowable sounds clear and simple, but in practice it is virtually impossible since the things that mean the most to us, our hopes, needs and symbols, are not facts that can be easily known. Being strictly scientifically scientific and adhering 100% to the falsifiability criterion would limit the scientific enterprise to merely observable phenomena, to simple facts, and exclude the strict scientist from weighting in on anything political or existential. But the very existence of science is a political and existential issue! Why should there be science? Why should we try to solve the small and the big questions? How should we organise society? Should the state fund scientific projects? Science is necessarily based on assumptions that themselves cannot be proved scientifically, and thus there is political or even religious aspects to science. Unless science finds a way of embracing its own religiousness instead of religously denying it the debate is skewed. The ultimate questions need to be solved through honest debates where all the brightest minds work together.

Dec 2 2008

We live in a time of great uncertainty, and learning how to deal with that is perhaps the greatest challenge we face. It sounds like a dramatic cliché, but like many clichés there is much to it. What uncertainties are we facing that previous generations did not face? The rich affluent West face an abundance of material and life-style choices never seen before, and like Barry Schwartz points out instead of making us happier it often creates frustration. The happiest we can ever hope to get is whatever the marketing promises and whenever we have made a choice the options we sacrificed are more than ever before. Our high expectations create disappointment, and the amount of choices create doubts about whether we made the best choice.

The whole notion of having major choices to make about how to live life is in many ways a novelty. Previous generations largely inherited their role in society from their parents, and their faith was not optional even for the most sophisicated philosphers and scientists. Christianity has been obligatory for most Westerners and now more and more people wake up to the fact that Christianity was merely a fairy tale with 2000 years of state sponsored marketing behind it. Any myth with that propaganda power behind it is bound to penetrate the core of our being and we are still rubbing our eyes at the breakfast table, grasping for the coffee that will make us leave that dream behind.

Another related source of uncertainty that is a complete novelty in the history of mankind is the interchange of cultures that is an inevitable consequence of globalisation and indeed proper general education. It is harder for us to cling to our native values when we are being challenged by other religious, political and cultural values. When we are faced with contrasting alternatives we are forced to ask ourselves why what we have is superior.

This doubt in our own superiority over other cultures and our unique position in the universe has been dealt further blows by the so called “masters of suspicion“: Copernicus, Darwin, Freud, Nietzsche and Marx who each have deprived us of some consoling myth or other. We are no longer at the centre of the universe, not essentially different from other animals, not the masters of ourselves, and religion is an opium to keep us from seeing reality.

Having deprived us of the cushy religious certainties science would ironically pull the rug underneath itself. Discoveries in quantum physics made almost 100 years ago were so contradictory to our habits of thinking that we still have not been able to make sense of them. The Uncertainty Principle presented us not only with a logical puzzle and counter-intuitive empirical results but also an epistemological fence previously undiscovered – there was a sign post saying “you can know this but nothing more.” That Newtonian physics could be challenged at all left a deep doubt in the entire project of Modernity with it’s belief in science and technology as the panacea for all human problems. If we cannot find a foundation for our knowledge, an Archimedean point on which to base all knowledge, how is science superior to religion or any fashionable myth that may capture the popular imagination for a time but will inevitably be replaced? If inside science there can be conflicting paradigms with an apparent equal claim on the truth, how can science itself claim authority over other traditional belief systems?

This is why I think we live if times of unprecedented uncertainty, and that causes grave anxiety. I suggest that there are two dominating ways of coping with this anxiety, and they are two sides of the same coin. The first is classic denial erupting into irrational authoritarianism, and the other is a hands-off, laissez faire, post-modern relativism that either accepts NO authority or claims ALL authorities to be equal – “I have my truth you have yours”. We are very aware of the danger that ideological and religious certainties can cause and how they can serve those in power. By demonising an enemy one can consolidate a people, unite them under God and send soldiers to die “ad majorem gloriam”, but while the relativist “solution” is healthier and an admirable effort in diplomacy I’m convinced it is not ultimately a cure for the anxiety. It is a natural reaction to the horrors of totalitarian power abuse by the Church, the State and even Science, to fall into the attitude that we cannot know anything and that any guess is as good as any other, but we know that that is not really true. That we cannot have absolute certainty does not mean we cannot tell better from worse. It does not mean our approximations cannot be good enough for most practical purposes. I think the relativist rebellion against authority is based on the exact same erroneous notion of what human knowledge is. The assumption is that unless the knowledge is somehow final and definite it is not knowledge at all, and ironically by rejecting ALL authority the relativist placebo is trying to find a new certainty in the opposite extreme. Instead of clearing away delusions it seems to offer everyone an epistemological holiday to be delusional, each one in their own favourite way.

Many have pointed out that paradoxically, by trying to distribute equal authority to all, the relativist is still saving a special position for that particular doctrine. In a world full of people that do not believe that truth is relative, he who holds that view is granting himself more authority than the others. In so doing he is performatively proving himself wrong. This is pretty much how Socrates sliced Protagoras doctrine that “man is the measure of everything” to pieces in Plato’s dialogue Theaetetus 400BC.

Many relativists see the historian of science Thomas Kuhn as this (paradoxical) authority that has shown that science is just another type of religion. They think that his paradigm concept is the scientific equivalent of the church denominations, and like you have Protestants and Catcholics, you have String theorists and Multiverse physicists. Ironically Kuhn himself rejects these accusations of him being a relativist when writing “scientific development is, like biological, a unidirectional and irreversible process. Later scientific theories are better than earlier ones for solving puzzles in the often quite different environments to which they are applied. That is not a relativist’s position, and it displays the sense in which I am a convinced believer in scientific progress.”

Another irony is that while relativism may be motivated by a noble striving towards tolerance and diversity, if there is no neutral evidence based court in which to settle questions about truth there is nothing stopping totalitarian political powers to declare truth to be whatever serves their purposes. While the motivation is diplomatic tolerance it backfires and paves way for abusive authoritarianism, which is what Bertrand Russell argumented in the essay “The Ancestry of Fascism.”


Both the absolutist position and the relativist position are unsuccessful efforts of coping with uncertainty.

Hence both the absolutist position and the relativist position are unsuccessful efforts of coping with uncertainty. This leaves the mind very frustrated as uncertainty is an essentially emotional problem. This can be seen in how people live. Gradually as we grow older we try to eliminate as much uncertainty and risk as possible. The more we accumulate the busier we are struggling not to loose it. The mind wants to eliminate any type of uncertainty double-quick. The clever old Buddhists called this the grasping mind.

While it is true that on an absolute and ultimate level we cannot know anything for sure, on a practical level we must still make choices based on our best guesses. While some of those guesses could for all practical purposes be considered ”true” the real question is why we feel such a need to convince ourselves that we are right? Why are we so hopeless at dealing with risk when in reality probabilities is all life has to offer? Essentially the Western world has never learnt how not to know. I say Western, not because it is an exclusively Occidental problem, but because Eastern philosophers such as Nagarjuna were well aware of the limits of thought way back when Christian hypocrites were simply paying lip-service to doubting Thomas.

Is it an absurd idea to have a course in unknowledge?

Another reason why we are so bad at not knowing is because what could be called “anepistemology” is a missing subject in our school curriculum. Anepistemology  would be the study of what we cannot know. Is it an absurd idea to have a course in unknowledge? Can you imagine a teacher sharing with the class everything they don’t know and things they have doubts about? Hard to picture, but I actually did a course in Quantum Physics and the Limits of Knowledge at Uni in Gothenburg when I was 19. That one course was perhaps the best I got from my five year philosophy studies.

The following small list of things we cannot know may serve as a starting point:

  • The future
  • Others’ motives
  • Our own motives
  • What, if anything, we are supposed to do on this planet
  • The answers to the big mysteries of the Universe
  • What it is like to be another being
  • How much there is to know and what proportion of that we actually know
  • Which of the ideas we now hold to be true that future generations will use as examples of our simple-mindedness

These some of the things we know that we cannot know with any high degree of certainty, yet every day we pretend we do. The role of education in this respect would be to teach about the limits of human knowledge and show that it is OK not to know. It is important to learn to make choices with insufficient information without reverting to false certainties. The future is not going to be any less uncertain and learning to take risks will be an even more important skill.

I also believe the practice of meditation can play an important role. One of the effects of meditation on the mind is the creation of a larger “inner space” in which opposing ideas can co-exist without creating a civil war. By observing ideas as if they were clouds passing by in one’s “inner sky” one can extract that emotional identification that can make one blinded by passion. A mind that feels safe and happy in the silence can navigate through the practical problems of every day life more efficiently. If uncertainty and fallibility is the starting point, the ground and context of every decision, one doesn’t need to fool oneself with false certainties nor despondently abstain from choosing. Accepting the unknown is not being ignorant. It is being sincere.

Accepting the unknown is not being ignorant. It is being sincere.

For a related Psychosynthesis exercise check out this article on disidentification.

PS. Google inadvertently just told me more stuff we don’t seem to know. I use the define:xxx function but before I typed what I was looking for it suggested some common searches people have done lately. Interesting that socialism, philosophy and pragmatic are among the top 10!

General ignorance

Intellectual sincerity

Nov 15 2008

When I was 13 I was singing in the village church choir and would happily deliver the most obscure Christian lyrics with the same plastered smile. But I remember this one line that at first I did not understand at all, and that then made me choke as I learnt what it meant. It was taken from the Book of Revelation 3:16 and said that “God would spew the lukewarm out of his mouth.” The choir leader explained to me that lukewarm meant “neither hot, nor cold”, that’s to say neither with God or Us nor with the Devil or Them, and spew really meant that God would vomit such a person out of his mouth.


Art thou lukewarm?

This image made a horrific and lasting impression on me, not primarily because it depicted a most vulgar vomiting God which did not coincide with the glorified image of the divine I had in my head, but more so because it did not make any sense. Had God gone bonkers? Even with a 13 year old’s logic I understood that there was something truly fishy about this. Why would God prefer someone outright evil to someone unsettled or in doubt? Why would God prefer a definitive liar to an honest doubter? If he was “the truth, the way and the life” then surely any honest searcher would eventually get it right and fall into the right faith like a snail into a water well. The only situation in which God would win anything from this vomiting business was if he was hiding something. For all the talk about how OK it was to doubt and question, here it was in black and white: If you seriously doubted God you would become God vomit. There was of course the paradox that if God didn’t exist then he could not spew either, but that was the kind of insight you were not supposed to have. More with my guts then with my bedazzled indoctrinated mind did I realize that a liar stood to benefit most from people not asking any more questions. If there was a truth then jumping to conclusions would only stall the process of finding it out. Why would God be in a rush? It’s not as if it was his time that was running out!

Thinking about it now, God seems not just a little bit neurotic here. The God of the old testament has often been called jealous and angry, but this is at the end of the new testament. If he cannot deal with the undecided why not just do something else?! It’s not like he doesn’t have the rest of the Universe to attend to. Prozac perhaps? A spliff? Maybe he just had a bad day and needs a massage.

Just Foreign Policy Iraqi Death Estimator

It was with the same gut feeling I listened to the US ex-president saying “either you are with us or you are with the terrorists” when going to war on Iraq. What about the undecided? What about the ones feeling they lack sufficient information to make such a choice? Even if one agreed that destructive belief systems were dangerous and called for action, how could anyone imagine that you could bomb them away without creating even more enemies? Does not wanting to fight fire with fire make you a terrorist? No, but causing 1,288,426 of Iraqi deaths does.

Dichotomization and forced choice is something most totalitarian organisations have in common, and while that may serve the purpose of domination they do not lead to truth about the world nor a clear conscience.