One of the perks of my utterly unpaid blogging "career" is being able to interact with intelligent, thoughtful, well-spoken people who are interested in exploring the same subjects I care about.
A commenter on this blog who goes by Appreciative Reader is one such person. Whenever I read something from him, I'm much impressed by the quality of the ideas being expressed.
Below is a message that was emailed to me by Appreciative Reader. As you'll read, he felt it was lengthy enough to be unsuitable as a blog comment. I, though, felt it was perfect for a blog post.
Since, Appreciative Reader and I have exchanged more ideas on the subjects he addresses. My initial response follows his message. We tend to repeat ourselves, saying somewhat similar things in different ways, but this is natural.
As noted in his message, science, or the search for knowledge in general, isn't about finding unchangeable truths. It is a never-ending process of inquiry.
Dear Brian,About that “Let’s find out!” comment of mine, my thoughts on the agnostic-atheist debate. I’ve put together my thoughts here one more time, and I’d love to know what you think about it.For reasons I won’t bore you with, I’ve not been able to spend much time at your blog these last few days. And in any case, when trying to get my thoughts together coherently and properly in my (offline and stand-alone) journal just now, I find I’ve filled up three full Word doc pages : and I suppose it would be bad form to hog the dance floor at your party by uploading such a gargantuan comment on to your blog. So instead of inserting this as a comment at some appropriate place in your blog, I’m simply sending this across to you as an email.What I’m saying is this : that atheists basically take a blinkered view of rationality and of science.And what I’m saying here is so very ordinary and simple and entirely common-sense that one would imagine it would be obvious : and yet, surprisingly, it does not seem to be obvious (at least I haven’t seen this very straightforward point-of-view explicitly voiced in the course of my admittedly scattered reading of the atheist point of view and even more scattered one-on-ones with people on the subject of the “supernatural” and the supra-normal).But first, a brief note on definitions. People generally use the terms “atheist” and “agnostic” to mean many different things, and often end up speaking at cross purposes. We’ve already spoken of this.For the purpose of this discussion, let’s define the Agnostic as someone who, when he thinks of “supernatural” stuff, simply says “I don’t know” ; while the Atheist, when faced with the same question(s), reacts somewhat differently : while naturally not presuming to pronounce with full certainly that such things CANNOT be, he is so very strongly inclined towards active disbelief that the difference (with an active belief in the negative) is more a technicality than anything else.The atheist, in other words, does not seriously consider questions about the supernatural, except to “debunk” those questions by the easy expedient of simply pointing out the absence of evidence that generally accompany claims of extra-normal/supernatural experiences and/or realization.(This agrees with how you’ve defined the term Atheist in your blog recently, in a comment ; although you’ve also, elsewhere in your blog, defied the Atheist in more general terms.)Needless to say, both these animals (as defined above) are essentially rational and will certainly, if actually provided incontrovertible proof (either of the existence of God, or—were that possible—of His non-existence) will go with the evidence. It is their thoughts and actions now, in the absence of clinching evidence one way or the other, that defines them as Atheist and Agnostic.So : when faced with anything “supernatural”, the atheist falls back on the formula that goes “Show me the proof!”. He (the atheist) refuses to engage seriously with any discussion on God or indeed on anything “supernatural” unless such discussion is actually proved. Now logically this position is sound. The onus of proof that God exists, or that “supernatural” phenomena exist, or that supernatural realities and/or dimensions exist, naturally does lie with the person positing such entity or phenomenon.However, the atheist’s position, while logically sound, is blinkered ; and the taking up of such a position arises out of an imperfect understanding and/or appreciation of what “science” is. And that, in short, is the point of what I’m saying here.It seems to me that the atheist imagines that “science” comprises some sets of “scientifically proven facts”. He insists on staying within the bounds of these “known and scientifically proven facts”. And he thinks that anyone looking beyond these “scientifically proven facts” is—unless they come equipped with incontrovertible proof—being unscientific and irrational.Wrong! Here is what I think and believe science is.The scientific method is a method, a PROCESS, of making sense of, well, everything. Of making sense of the world around us, and also the world “within” us (hence medical science and psychology and psychiatry, et al). And this very fundamental point is something I believe atheists confuse (in practice, that is, when speaking of their atheism : even while they agree with this description of science in abstract terms).To take a very basic example : we know that the earth rotates round its axis, and revolves round the sun. Now it isn’t as if this “fact” is scientific : what is scientific is, actually, the process by which we have arrived at this explanation. These explanations, theories, they are provisional. We accept them for now, but we are (at least, the scientist is) always open to this belief (to these theories) being overturned by some new advance in science. Even something as apparently elementary and “obvious” as the heliocentric solar system is no more than a model (a model that is always open to change if new observations and/or theories so warrant) : and that is something the true scientist never loses sight of.The scientist himself does not conflate his models with “reality”. It is the layman who loses sight of this, and who ends up seeing science as a static collection of facts. The scientist, who realizes and understands what science actually is, is always open to having the bounds of scientifically proven knowledge further and beyond currently known limits. That is how science progresses and knowledge grows.(And it may well happen that some bona fide scientist may end up thinking unscientifically and layman-like when dealing with some things outside his immediate expertise, I suppose in the same way as—to take a diametrically opposite example that still illustrates the point—Newton reportedly attributed “creation” of the universe to a Creator who did his creating and then stood aside to let the Universe follow the laws He’d set for it, and in so positing a “Creator” was being wholly unscientific, despite being a top-dog scientist himself.)Here are some questions :One : Might life have not arisen on earth, but instead have been brought down to us via meterorites?Two : Can we go faster than the speed of sound without being reduced to broken bits and pieces?Three : Are there any intrinsic and theoretical limits (as opposed to technical/technological and practical limits) to stuff? Stuff like, for instance, the velocity of a spaceship, or the accuracy of our observations of nano-particles?Four : Can some form of energy, hitherto unmapped by science, be unleashed from/near the base of our spine through to our crown, thereby giving us access to extraordinary knowledge, extraordinary abilities, and extraordinary and lasting bliss?Five : Can an averagely built man of average height successfully fight off, unarmed, four tall and sturdy men attacking him?Assume that you do not already know the answers (for instance : that you do not know that non-catastrophic supersonic travel is commonplace today ; that you haven’t heard of the speed-of-light limit or the Uncertainty Principle ; that you haven’t heard of, far less actually practiced, martial art disciplines, etc). The issue is this : how do you deal with these questions in the absence, at this time, of incontrovertible answers?The believer’s answer to these questions will be will be : Yes! He’ll probably also sonorously add a Hallelujah, or an Amen, or an Om, or an Inshallah Taalah. And he’ll produce some joss sticks from his pocket and start singing hymns to the holy Brother-in-Law of God who lives on meteorites, Who looks after people trying to go faster than sound, and Who protects solitary people who’re attacked by four murderous giants, et cetera. And he will also either slyly start wearing funny dog collars and collecting 10% of the contents of people’s pockets, or naively start emptying his own pockets into the collection plate held before him.The atheist—logical but blinkered—will say, Show me the proof, or stop talking!While it is the agnostic who will say, to every such question that he does not know the answer to : “I have no idea, I do not know”. And sometimes he will also add “Let’s find out!” And if he’s moved by this spirit of “Let’s find out!”, then he’ll set out trying to rigorously examine the possibility of the presence of carbon compounds on comets, or the mechanics of supersonic travel, or the practicability of systems of martial arts.So on whom, then, lies the onus of proof? The believer will say, Faith needs no proof. The atheist will say, The onus of proof lies on the person who posits that life came to earth from comets (or whatever)—and in so saying, he will be logical but blinkered ; he will not be wrong but he will be only half-right. And the true scientist will say, The onus of proof lies on the person who cares enough about the question to want to find out the answer to his satisfaction, and to spend time and effort to arrive at such answer. The scientist will say, “Let’s find out!”And it is this spirit of “Let’s find out!” that is the very backbone of science. Without it, science is dead. It is as dead as is religion.Think about it : When faced with the question, “Why do these things in the sky behave as they do?”, if Copernicus and Galileo and Kepler, instead of hypothesizing and then setting off to prove (or disprove) their hypotheses, were content to say to themselves and to one another (when they thought of some explanation) “Yes, but where is the proof? There is no proof of this, so this is nonsense”, then the proof would never ever have been forthcoming, would it now?Forget the heliocentric cosmology of Copernicus, we would then not even have had the earlier earth-centric cosmology (posited by Aristotle, I think? I’m not sure of this, but whoever) but instead have to rest content with weird stories of sun gods running off to seduce moon goddesses, or some such nonsense.Or if, firmly and consistently logical and rational, we did not accept even those mythological stories without proof, then we would simply have to say to ourselves “One big yellow ball in the sky by day, and a thousand twinkling points in the sky by night, and that is all we know, nothing else”. Perhaps that is exactly what dogs and cats and elephants think (if they can think at all), when they see the sun and the stars? (“Bow wow! Bark bark! Look, yellow ball! Look, twinkling lights! Now let’s go eat, and then let’s go copulate!”) But this is NOT science, not really—even though it is “logical” and “rational”.It is human nature to seek explanations and deeper layers of reality, layers and depths which are not immediately apparent. It is this propensity to seek deeper-than-immediately-apparent explanations that have let us humans progress to where we are today.What science does is give us a way to direct this propensity of ours to seek answers, to channel this propensity of ours to seek explanations, away from dysfunctional routes like religion and blind faith and weird myths. But it is, nevertheless, just a method ; and can yield knowledge only when we loudly and repeatedly chant out the mantra of “Let’s find out!”.Without someone willing to take the trouble—even a great deal of trouble—to find out by actually carrying out experiments and research (as you yourself did, Brian, with your years and decades of meditation), science is just as dead as is religion. The actual result of the experiment, and therefore the particular answer of a “scientist” to a particular question, is far less important (in this particular discussion of ours, I mean to say) than is the fact that someone actually did perform the experiment properly and fully, that someone did say “Let’s find out!”, instead of either unthinkingly accepting (or, like the atheist, half-thinkingly rejecting) whatever idea they were faced with.And that is why I say the atheist is blinkered and only half-correct. That he does not seem to fully appreciate what science is.I’ll look forward to hearing your views on this, Brian.With best wishes,“Appreciative Reader”.P.S. It is obvious enough where exactly the atheist is coming from. When you have a red-faced fundamentalist breathing loudly down your neck, telling you in a loud voice that you’ll go to hell for not believing, then obviously you need to shout out “Where’s your proof? Show me your proof, or get lost!”.You need to ask this Where’s-your-proof question bluntly and loudly and repeatedly, both of the religious fanatic and, even more importantly, of your own self, to stop yourself from starting to half-believe in the universally accepted religious nonsense. Yes, it is easy enough to understand and to empathize with the militancy of “militant atheists”.However, there is a time and a place, beyond which such an attitude is unnecessary. Someone brought up in a violent ghetto or slum may quite justifiably react to some stranger coming too close to them in the street at night by hitting out at them ; but when they’ve moved away to more civilized environs, it is dysfunctional (perhaps even psychotic) to persist with that same kind of behavior and thinking. Thus with the “where’s the proof?” atheist.P.P.S. So what is one to do? Should everyone then spend two or three decades meditating an hour each day, like you yourself did? The answer to that question is the same as the answer to the question “Should everyone spend years, even decades, in understanding advanced math and physics and cosmology, and in trying to work out stuff like relativity and quantum mechanics and the mathematical basis of black-holes theories?”, and the same answer that you yourself had suggested to me once (in a different context). And that answer is : Only if they want to!
This was my initial response to Appreciative Reader.
Great message. Assume you won’t mind if I share it as a blog post, with a few introductory remarks. I agree with pretty much everything you said.
Salem governance is THE indisputable proof that organizations are subject to the Dunning-Kruger Effect as much as individuals are.
Check out that link. Makes sense. Basically, incompetent people’s incompetence extends to their believing that they are competent. Whereas competent people understand their limitations, so consider themselves less competent than they really are.