Print Story In Praise of Doubt
By DullTrev (Mon Jan 29, 2007 at 02:59:23 PM EST) doubt, vodka, fun loving cowwqas. (all tags)

You know, this article started out as a calm scholarly examination of the nature of belief and religions. But then the vodka came out, so you get a bit more of a rollicking rant. Forgive me...

So, anyway. Here's the thing - we're living in a world which is becoming increasingly obsessed with certainty. This obsession is manifested in a number of ways, but the one thing they all have in common is an almost evangelical zeal around them - because it is a certainty, anyone who disagrees is wrong, is foolish, is evil. For someone to know that their certainty is, well, certain, different views cannot be allowed.

Now, the most obvious example of this these days is the issue that so dramatically dominates the foreign policy of the entire western sphere - Islamic fundamentalism. This is clearly about certainty, in a religious sense. These fundamentalists are certain, completely convinced, that their view of the world is absolutely correct. Opposing viewpoints are wrong, but more than that, they are dangerous. They are dangerous to these fundamentalists, and, in their twisted worldview, they are dangerous to all people, as they could lead them away from the true path to salvation and happiness.

But this issue is only one side of the coin. Let's flip it over for a second. Who do we have on the other side? Well, if we're of a kind frame of mind, we have a group of leaders who passionately believe in democracy, liberty, and all the other good things we get Hollywood movies about. If you're feeling more cynical, and the astute amongst you may have worked out I am feeling that way tonight, we have the forces of capitalism on the other side. They too believe in self-determination and liberty - how else can people decide to buy their goods? Now, these people (democrats or capitalists, take your pick) are certain, completely convinced, that their view of the world is absolutely correct. Opposing viewpoints are wrong, but more than that, they are dangerous. They are dangerous to these fundamentalists, and, in their twisted worldview, they are dangerous to all people, as they could lead them away from the true path to salvation and happiness.

Let's take a shot at science too. The shrill denunciations of religion from Dawkins are matched only by the inane platitudes from Rowan Williams. Dawkins is a true scientific evangelical, in the most derogatory sense of the word. His obsession with certainty has lead him to believe that anything that the edifice of science does not understand is worthless - though presumably things that science in the future comes to understand are different. (Incidentally, this is true of science in general - anyone studying something outside of its current base of knowledge is often vilified - until through the scientific processes of experimentation and hypothesising which they are mocked for carrying out they come to understand it. Bah.) Anyway. Yes, this man decides that because he believes, absolutely believes in the scientific method, those who believe there is something outside of it are fools, and worse, dangerous fools if they allow their faith in other things to influence their actions. They are to be mocked and vilified until they see the bright shining light of science.

OK, that's enough of the big issues. Let's go down into the nitty gritty of daily life - or at least what we are led to believe is daily life. I've just watched a report that the British Home Office is considering bringing in that wonderfully accurate piece of scientific equipment into its parole considerations for sex offenders - the polygraph machine. Yes, that's right. Not for us the psychological assessments, observation, and such like. No, bung a couple of electrodes on someone, and just ask him if he's going to fiddle with any more kids. Hurrah!

Again, this comes from this ridiculous fallacy that science, or indeed anything, can give us a certain answer. That we can predict the future, and say that person X will definitely not re-offend, while person Y will. We want so desperately to believe that we can have certainty on this, that aberrant behaviour can somehow be predicted and stopped. It is part of the culture that now makes parents refuse to allow children to play outside unsupervised - so they can have certainty their little one will never be abused. (Despite the fact, of course, that the vast majority of child abuse is committed by members of the child's family.)

To be slightly less sensationalist, what about politics? Cam wrote an interesting diary about the descent of political discourse in the US into a series of mudflinging events. Myself, I see this as another symptom of this desire for only certainty - if we are right, obviously the otherside are wrong, and dolts, fascists, liberals, evil, whatever. So long as we can label them as 'Them', outside of the circle of right thinking people which is curiously astonishingly similar to people they agree with.

But what is the cause of all this? It's the same cause of so many of humanity's problems. It's us, it's humans. We feel a natural desire for for certainty, to know exactly who we are, what we should be doing, where our next meal comes from, what opinions we should have.

Now, I'm not saying that these views I have raged at above are wrong. For example, I have some sympathy with Dawkins' position. I have some sympathy with the democrat's position. But, and here's the thing, I don't believe that anyone who disagrees with me is wrong. For one very simple reason.

I am not infallible.

You are not infallible. We are not infallible. Not even the Pope.

So, when someone tells me my scientific views cannot take into account the wonder of religion, do I mock them? Do I vilify them? Do I feel so unsure of my own views that I must shout down my own doubts by shouting down my opponent? No. Rather, I embrace my doubt. Doubt, my friend, is a good thing. Doubt is what keeps us human.

Do I think I am right? Yes. Do I know I am right? No, absolutely not. Knowing you are right about something is all a matter of faith - and that's fine, I have no problem with faith. But trying to force your faith onto someone else is a lesson in futility, and a good way to start a fight, on both a personal and international scale.

Embrace your doubt, hold it close. Admire it for the wonder it is. How can I be tolerant of people who disagree with me? Because I doubt they are right. But I also doubt I am right. I am not arrogant enough to deny someone else the right to believe whatever the hell they want.

Doubt is the way to tolerance. Doubt yourself, and learn some humility in your views. You don't need to be swayed by anyone else's views, but you also don't need to force them to be swayed by yours. Debate, yes. Evangelise, no.

So, if we all learn to do this, the world will become a better place? We'll all get on more? We'll learn that certainty is an illusion we can never achieve? Well, I think it's worth a try. But, to be frank, I doubt it.

< One Tequila, Two Tequila, Three Tequila, Floor | BBC White season: 'Rivers of Blood' >
In Praise of Doubt | 55 comments (55 topical, 0 hidden)
+1 fp by 256 (4.00 / 1) #1 Mon Jan 29, 2007 at 03:12:11 PM EST
i think that doubt is arguably the most important virtue.

though i would add that doubt does not preclude confidence. and confidence is a good thing too.
I don't think anyone's ever really died from smoking. --ni

Are you sure about that? by Christopher Robin was Murdered (2.00 / 0) #2 Mon Jan 29, 2007 at 03:20:26 PM EST
lost in doubt

[ Parent ]
no by 256 (2.00 / 0) #3 Mon Jan 29, 2007 at 03:21:46 PM EST
but confident
I don't think anyone's ever really died from smoking. --ni
[ Parent ]
Anything that is real by debacle (2.00 / 0) #4 Mon Jan 29, 2007 at 03:52:24 PM EST
You can be sure about. Do you like breasts? Is beef good? Can your lungs extract oxygen from water?

These are the things that are important. The things that really matter.


paging all vegetarians -nt- by clover kicker (2.00 / 0) #5 Mon Jan 29, 2007 at 06:14:46 PM EST

[ Parent ]
To be awkward... by DullTrev (2.00 / 0) #19 Tue Jan 30, 2007 at 12:24:11 AM EST

Define real. I cannot be certain that any of you are real. Or anything I experience. It's a good working assumption, and probably fairly irrelevant either way in terms of what I do, but if I wanted to be annoying, I could doubt the existence of the entire universe.

But I only usually do that at about 4AM, after a bottle of vodka.

[ Parent ]
Real are the things that we need badly to survive by debacle (2.00 / 0) #38 Tue Jan 30, 2007 at 06:26:02 AM EST
The important things are real. The unimportant things you can question.

However, if there is no intent to survive, there is no need for anything to be real.


[ Parent ]
Physics by iGrrrl (2.00 / 0) #39 Tue Jan 30, 2007 at 07:29:48 AM EST
I can't remember who first said that physics is what happens when you're not looking at it.  The metaphysics isn't whether the tree fell due to the failure of structural integrity (cause, unknown) and caused sound waves. That's physics.  The percept of sound, should there be an ear present, starts with the physics of tympanic membrane movement causing hairs on sensory cells to move causing the mechanical gating of ion channels and thus the beginning of an electro-chemical cascade up through the olivary nucleus with a stop through one of the colliculi before ending up somewhere in the pre-frontal lobe as "sound."  If I recall correctly.  At some point the probabilities of transmission become stochastic, depending on a combination of decibel level and attention of the animal possesing the ear. 
"I honestly pity the stupid motherfucker who tries to talk down to iGrrrl" - mrgoat
[ Parent ]
doubt by MillMan (4.00 / 1) #6 Mon Jan 29, 2007 at 06:40:19 PM EST
doesn't work well in the face of determined opposition.

When I'm imprisoned as an enemy combatant, will you blog about it?

by which I mean by MillMan (2.00 / 0) #7 Mon Jan 29, 2007 at 06:42:20 PM EST
I wouldn't have thrown Dawkins under the bus for his zeal. Just because science doesn't have all the answers doesn't mean religion has any.

When I'm imprisoned as an enemy combatant, will you blog about it?

[ Parent ]
one more self reply by MillMan (2.00 / 0) #8 Mon Jan 29, 2007 at 06:52:23 PM EST
using Dawkins as a proxy for science to be used as a comparison to religion is terrible form.

When I'm imprisoned as an enemy combatant, will you blog about it?

[ Parent ]
really? by R343L (2.00 / 0) #9 Mon Jan 29, 2007 at 07:43:27 PM EST
Dawkins is seen as, um, strongly adherent to his point of view. Certain religious types have the same characteristic. Militant person of view X can be see as similar to militant person of view Y.

Now if Dawkins was being used as representative of science while, say, a UU minister was being held up as representative of religion, I would say it was unfair. But I don't think DullTrev was trying to make that point. I think he's trying to say that exposing a particular viewpoint so strongly is alienating and ultimately inimical to liberal, tolerant society, regardless of what viewpoint it is.

Or, in more rude terms, just because it's science doesn't give Dawkins (or anyone else) a free pass to be an intolerant asshole.


"There will be time, there will be time / To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet." -- Eliot

[ Parent ]
Since when do people need a free pass by debacle (2.00 / 0) #10 Mon Jan 29, 2007 at 08:14:02 PM EST
To be an intolerant asshole?


[ Parent ]
"free" by R343L (2.00 / 0) #12 Mon Jan 29, 2007 at 08:34:35 PM EST
In the sense that we don't criticize on their behavior. Of course, anyone is free to be an intolerant asshole. They are not free to be an intolerant asshole without expectation that someone will criticize them.


"There will be time, there will be time / To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet." -- Eliot

[ Parent ]
Wrong again by debacle (2.00 / 0) #37 Tue Jan 30, 2007 at 06:24:54 AM EST
They are also free to have the expectation that no one will criticize them.


[ Parent ]
They are not entitled by celeriac (2.00 / 0) #55 Sat Nov 10, 2007 at 03:57:57 PM EST
to believe that no one will criticize them.

If confused, see here.

[ Parent ]
sigh by martingale (4.00 / 6) #11 Mon Jan 29, 2007 at 08:34:08 PM EST
Son, you misunderstand Dawkins. We live in a world that has science. And this science has to be guarded by men with clout. Who's gonna do it? You? You, Dulltrev? Dawkins has a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom. You weep for your religion and you curse the atheists. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what others know: that ridiculing religion, while difficult, probably saves lives. And Dawkins' work, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives? You don't want the truth. Because deep down, in places you don't talk about at parties, you want Dawkins on that pulpit. You need Dawkins on that pulpit.

Scientists use words like truth, verifiability, repeatability, certainty - they use these words as the backbone to a life spent defending something. You use 'em as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain Dawkins' mission to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of all the benefits science provides, then questions the manner in which scientists provide them! I'd rather you just said thank you and went on your way. Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a pen and criticise religion.
$E(X_t|F_s) = X_s,\quad t > s$

IAWTP by MillMan (4.00 / 1) #13 Mon Jan 29, 2007 at 09:33:09 PM EST
"luxury" is the right word.

When I'm imprisoned as an enemy combatant, will you blog about it?

[ Parent ]
Son, you misunderstand DullTrev by Phage (4.00 / 4) #15 Mon Jan 29, 2007 at 10:56:49 PM EST
I have never heard a scientist use the word certainty without qualifiers.

And yes, we desperately need dawkins on the pulpit, but the pulpit can become a trap of its own.

[ Parent ]
that's still using the word certainty [n/t] by martingale (2.00 / 0) #21 Tue Jan 30, 2007 at 12:53:59 AM EST
tecknicly speakin' :)
$E(X_t|F_s) = X_s,\quad t > s$
[ Parent ]
Egads by Phage (4.00 / 1) #24 Tue Jan 30, 2007 at 02:05:58 AM EST
Skewered !

[ Parent ]
Um by DullTrev (4.00 / 2) #17 Tue Jan 30, 2007 at 12:08:55 AM EST

You misunderstand me... As I said, I have a lot of sympathy for Dawkins' position. What I don't have is sympathy for Dawkins' attitude. I didn't write what I wrote as an attack on science, I didn't write what I wrote as an attack on religion. I wrote it as an attack on zealots, of any type.

You say Dawkins has this awesome responsibility to defend science, that he is a brave defender standing against the tide of religion. Hogwash. My personal view is that we all have a responsibility to stand against anyone who professes utter certainty, whether that is religion or science. And yet I say that as someone who passionately believes in science - because the real harm in society comes not from science, or from religion, but from people, people who are so certain of any viewpoint that they refuse to accept any others have any validity, whether that validity is in terms of objective proof or just in what helps people get through the day.

Dawkins' stance does not help. Dawkins merely alienates people against science, because they are feeling an alienation towards him, the way he goes about evangelising his view. He causes conflict, not progress.

You also say that ridiculing religion saves lives. Myself, I'd say the case on religion is still out. Yes, it has caused wars, and conflict, and multitudes of meaningless deaths. But it also drives and inspires people to carry out acts of charity, of selfess assistance to people they do not know or have never met. When a local town I did some work in was flooded, the people out helping, the people making sure everyone was safe, were the faith groups, of every type. They weren't doing it to proselytize, they were doing it because they believed it was right. While I'd like to think I'd have done something similar without religion, I'm not going to say those who feel driven by their faith to do good acts are a bad thing.

The two sides of the debate you have picked on, science versus religion, are complex and multifaceted. And that, if nothing else, is what I am pointing out here - science isn't universally good or bad. Religion isn't universally bad or good. Doubt is the only rational response.

[ Parent ]
I did the job I had to do by martingale (4.00 / 1) #20 Tue Jan 30, 2007 at 12:51:16 AM EST
You say Dawkins has this awesome responsibility to defend science, that he is a brave defender standing against the tide of religion. Hogwash.
He does actually. His Chair at Oxford is for the Public Understanding Of Science. He's not there to do biology per se. You might not agree that he's very good at doing that. Blame the Microsoft millionnaires.

My personal view is that we all have a responsibility to stand against anyone who professes utter certainty, whether that is religion or science.
Do you think you can be certain about being subject to gravity or not? There are plenty of things that are certain in the world, not just death and taxes. Being certain means being free from doubt. If someone doubts _everything_ around them, the colour of the sky, the people he sees, the sounds of the street, that fire is hot, that walking gets them to where they want to go, that they'll wake up again after they've gone to sleep... Would you not call such a doubting person a basketcase?

Doubting everything is no good. What one needs is a procedure for making doubts disappear, gradually replacing them with certainties.

Dawkins' stance does not help. Dawkins merely alienates people against science, because they are feeling an alienation towards him, the way he goes about evangelising his view. He causes conflict, not progress.
Conflict is not always bad. It's the basis of various popular forms of logical thinking: you put ideas that support one side next to ideas that support the opposite, and you cancel out corresponding ideas until you're left with only one side.

The conflict in society about these issues can be viewed as a manifestation of this principle.

  • A: science isn't universally good or bad.
  • B: Religion isn't universally bad or good.
  • C: Doubt is the only rational response.
Doubt of what? How do you get from A+B to C?
$E(X_t|F_s) = X_s,\quad t > s$
[ Parent ]
Nothing is certain by Phage (2.00 / 0) #22 Tue Jan 30, 2007 at 01:00:21 AM EST
Cognitive theory (too lazy to Google links) offers that everyone creates a mental model of the world based on memories, heuristics and sensory data. What may be certain in your model may not be certain in mine.

[ Parent ]
?redo from start by martingale (2.00 / 0) #25 Tue Jan 30, 2007 at 02:25:19 AM EST
Well, if you're saying that the things people are certain about can vary, sure I agree. If you're saying that nothing can be certain because there are always two people at least who disagree about it, then I think you have a problem.
$E(X_t|F_s) = X_s,\quad t > s$
[ Parent ]
A step too far by Phage (2.00 / 0) #35 Tue Jan 30, 2007 at 04:48:11 AM EST
Not at least.
Everyone disagrees, just by differing amounts. That's kinda the point, reality by consensus. Descartes and solipsism.

[ Parent ]
i think that by 256 (4.00 / 1) #31 Tue Jan 30, 2007 at 03:35:19 AM EST
good doubt has a different character as applied towards science than as towards religion.

but it should be there for both. i may act as though i am entirely certain that i'm subject to gravity, but in my heart i know it's only a likelihood.

it lies somewhere between the problem of induction and quine's indeterminacy of translation.
I don't think anyone's ever really died from smoking. --ni

[ Parent ]
Doubt by Herring (4.00 / 2) #14 Mon Jan 29, 2007 at 09:44:09 PM EST
Surely the essence of the scientific method is doubt. There is never certainty about a hypthesis, just a degree of confidence depending upon how much the empirical evidence supports it.

Having recently finished The God Delusion, I don't find Dawkins to be particularly shrill (you have read him before crticising, haven't you?). He doesn't even say "there is no god", he just says "there is no evidence for god so god is very, very unlikely". Also, by invoking a bit of magic "logic", he makes the following argument:
Xtians: "The universe is very complicated, therefore it must have been created by an intelligence"
RD: "Then this intelligence must be even more complicated. What created that?"

The other point he makes (frequently) is that religion is actively unhelpful. When you have cardinals telling people in Africa that the HIV virus can pass through condoms, or Mulsim doctors telling people not to vaccinate their children, then it's more than just unhelpful, it's dangerous.

The world is very complicated and full of doubt. You can accept that, or you can fall back on the certainty of your Invisible Sky Giant.

PS I don't think you'll find a single real scientist who will say that the polygraph is 100% accurate. Most real studies tend to indicate that it's all but useless, but again people want simple answers in a complicated world.

You can't inspire people with facts
- Small Gods

The essence is doubt by DullTrev (2.00 / 0) #18 Tue Jan 30, 2007 at 12:20:14 AM EST

Yes, absolutely. And yes, I picked Dawkins because he happened to have been irritating me recently. His public voice, his tv shows, his appearances, his contributions to the debate, have been annoying and shrill. But equally, those standing on the opposite side have been just as bad - this doesn't make either side right.

Yes, religion can be bad. But as I said in my reply to MillMan, it can also achieve good things. The same could be said for science.

Meh. I guess I just don't care enough about religion to go out attacking it. It seems to me to still be a matter of opinion over whether it is, overall, a force for good, or a force for bad.

P.S. As for the polygraph thing, that was just because I got annoyed at the report on Newsnight. You should watch it. Some monkey who is trying to sell the kit to the Home Office saying the equipment is 100% accurate, because all it is is a 'medical device' which measures heart rate, etc. Yes, that's right, he said the equipment was 100% accurate, very carefully not saying the conclusions drawn from it are. It annoyed me.

[ Parent ]
Sides by Herring (2.00 / 0) #23 Tue Jan 30, 2007 at 01:28:03 AM EST
I suppose I see it that religion is, at best, a waste of time and money, and at worst extremely dangerous.

As for a force for good, who saved more people: Mother Teresa or Edward Jenner?

Re. the vaccination thing, some wag on NHS Blog Doc did point out that if all extreme Muslims refused vaccination, then if it came to global jihad we'd know what biological weapons to use...

Newsnight: didn't see it, but the BBC seems to be abandoning science rapidly. You only need to watch Horizon to realise this.

You can't inspire people with facts
- Small Gods

[ Parent ]
Jenner was a Christian by Dr H0ffm4n (4.00 / 1) #27 Tue Jan 30, 2007 at 02:30:59 AM EST
Who has saved more lives, NATO or the Red Cross/Red Crescent?

[ Parent ]
Is that relevant? by Herring (4.00 / 1) #29 Tue Jan 30, 2007 at 02:44:38 AM EST
At the time of Jenner, it was kind-of the default position.

I suppose a better example: is polio/malaria/HIV more likely to be eradicated by:
a) Vaccines
b) Prayer

Given that, if I want to help people should I give my time or money to:
a) the church
b) a research charity

Sure, organisations such as the catholic church do spend some resources on helping people (so long as they aren't homos). But they have huge resources which they don't spend on helping people.

You can't inspire people with facts
- Small Gods

[ Parent ]
Can't say. by Christopher Robin was Murdered (2.00 / 0) #45 Wed Jan 31, 2007 at 04:20:35 AM EST
If the theory that HIV/AIDs started with the mass immunization of Central Africans with tainted polio vaccines, then vaccines are considerably more responisble for the spread of AIDs than anything the church said or did after the fact.

[ Parent ]
NATO by jump the ladder (2.00 / 0) #30 Tue Jan 30, 2007 at 02:46:13 AM EST
Nuclear war could have killed a billion at least but the strong deterrence provided by NATO prevented that.

[ Parent ]
Regarding that, by mrgoat (2.00 / 0) #40 Tue Jan 30, 2007 at 11:16:39 AM EST
I'm not so sure that "strong deterrence" saving lives is so cut and dried an argument.

How many lives? Compared to which other actions? Performed by whom?

--top hat--

[ Parent ]
doubt by theantix (2.00 / 0) #48 Mon Feb 05, 2007 at 12:00:49 PM EST
Dawkins has repeatedly acknowledged the possibility that there is a God.   He just correctly points out what an extremely remote possibility that is, and the harm which has come as a result in this massively improbable belief.  In fact, all science must have the presumption of uncertainty, skepticism is a core belief even if it's not perfectly followed all the time. 

Thus, your entire premise is full of shit.  Humans talk in certain terms even when they acknowledge uncertainty.  It's stupid to have to say "Hello, apparently human entity who appears to be Bob, I have the impression of sight which creates the visual and sensational impression you are shaking my hand." 

Some things reach a threshold of certainty which afford us the ability to be certain enough to avoid the kind of crapspeak you'd have to use to convey the fact that you are very slightly uncertain.  This is the sense that Dawkins and other reasonable people can be atheists.  I am certain there is no god in the same sense that I am certain that there is a place called Shanghai, and that I am certain other people have the same sorts of emotions that I do, and that I am not living in the elaborate hoax world of The Matrix.

Because indeed there is the possibility that the concept of China is just an gigantic joke and in fact undersea robot aliens make all the shitty plastic toys you seen in dollar stores.  But that possibility is so slim and so unreasonable that for the sake of living in the world and not explaining simple things over and over again.  There is no god, and one would be correctly termed as delusional for believing it.  But like I said, there is the theoretical chance that I'm wrong.
I'm sorry, but your facts disagree with my opinion.

[ Parent ]
I'm guessing that by Phage (2.00 / 0) #16 Mon Jan 29, 2007 at 11:09:12 PM EST
The Vodka started to hit around the start of paragraph 4 below the fold.

I am happy to state that I know practically nothing. but there's a flavour for everyone.

Apathetic agnosticism—the view that there is no proof of either the existence or nonexistence of God(s), but since any God(s) that may exist appear unconcerned for the universe or the welfare of its inhabitants, the question is largely academic anyway.

(Comment Deleted) by yicky yacky (2.00 / 0) #26 Tue Jan 30, 2007 at 02:27:28 AM EST

This comment has been deleted by yicky yacky

You're not the BBC by jump the ladder (4.00 / 1) #28 Tue Jan 30, 2007 at 02:36:21 AM EST
Religious zeolots versus Dawkins is a no-brainer. Dawkins supports your right to doubt in the name of science.

Religious zeolots don't let you doubt at all.

that's easy to say when by garlic (2.00 / 0) #32 Tue Jan 30, 2007 at 03:41:51 AM EST
you take one person and compare them against a moving target.

[ Parent ]
Religion != Religious zealots by motty (2.00 / 0) #34 Tue Jan 30, 2007 at 04:30:58 AM EST
Also a no-brainer, and the major problem with Dawkins' attacks on religion. Not all religions are dogmatic, or the same. Some religions require you to doubt and to think for yourself.

I amd itn ecaptiaghle of drinking sthis d dar - Dr T
[ Parent ]
excellent by martingale (4.00 / 1) #41 Tue Jan 30, 2007 at 01:19:29 PM EST
Then, as one of my school teachers used to say: you know the answer already, so pretend I'm not talking to you.

Smart religionists should pretend they're not the ones being challenged.
$E(X_t|F_s) = X_s,\quad t > s$

[ Parent ]
One thing by blixco (4.00 / 4) #33 Tue Jan 30, 2007 at 03:53:11 AM EST
that being married to a scientist has taught me is, science is very rarely wrong (though science from 100 years ago might be wrong more often) but scientists often are.

The humans in any equation make that equation a non-mathematical event, one that has a set of chaotic factors that no-one can accurately predict, I don't care how many books they've published.

In science, there is very often not one big truth, no big eureka moment.  There are many small hard fought things that may lead to some conclusion if you hit the right set of numbers.  Sometimes the scientist has to choose which conclusion his funding will be best represented by, in order to secure future funding.

Speaking in pure terms, science vs belief is a wash of absolutes too fundamental to be accurate.  The best parts of philosophy and science are the parts that leave the user open to expectation of some new thing.  The places where there aren't any answers.  Speculation is a fine past time.  It can lead to fortune.

So, fuck 'em.  Let the believers believe, and let the scientists calculate.  The two will never live in the same universe anyhow.  Those of us who want more human and less math find a lot of joy in both.
I accidentally had a conversation in italian at lunchtime. I don't speak italian. - Merekat

I speak the language of doubt by iGrrrl (4.00 / 5) #36 Tue Jan 30, 2007 at 06:08:51 AM EST
This is a conclusion I had to come to early in my  graduate training.  The hardest thing to adjust to was the lack of certainty in science, that every statement had to be qualified.  The best example I've ever found is in Stranger in a Strange Land, where some one asks the Fair Witness (who can only report what she sees), "What color is that house?"  Her answer: "It's white on this side."

And, in science, that's all you can say.  You have to leave open to questions, to doubt, the colors of the walls you cannot see.

I'm a minister, an agnostic one, which makes me good for pretty much any ceremony you need.  My first wedding invoked the Norse pantheon.  I view religion as a tool, one used for good or ill.  Comfort after the death of a loved one?  Good use.  Motivation for charitable work?  Good use.  Excuse to blow up other people? Bad use.  Motivation to beat up someone because of who they fuck?  Bad use.

Science is a tool.  Religion is a tool.  Even doubt itself is a tool to avoid complacency and self-righteousness.  Choose good tools, and use them wisely.
"I honestly pity the stupid motherfucker who tries to talk down to iGrrrl" - mrgoat

are you sure about that? by martingale (2.00 / 0) #42 Tue Jan 30, 2007 at 01:23:10 PM EST
$E(X_t|F_s) = X_s,\quad t > s$
[ Parent ]
Nope by iGrrrl (4.00 / 1) #43 Tue Jan 30, 2007 at 03:48:01 PM EST
not biting
"I honestly pity the stupid motherfucker who tries to talk down to iGrrrl" - mrgoat
[ Parent ]
nevermind by martingale (4.00 / 1) #44 Tue Jan 30, 2007 at 04:07:08 PM EST
I'm no longer channeling Jack Nicholson at this time.
$E(X_t|F_s) = X_s,\quad t > s$
[ Parent ]
increasingly? by aphrael (4.00 / 1) #46 Wed Jan 31, 2007 at 06:03:47 AM EST
I don't agree with the premise that we're becoming increasingly obsessed with certainty: I think the body of ideas embedded in the concepts of postmodernism raise the worship of uncertainty to new heights.

This isn't to say that certainty isn't the problem you say it is; just that I see no reason to believe it is more of a problem today than it ever has been.
If television is a babysitter, the internet is a drunk librarian who won't shut up.

Paging Dr. Majikthise by Bevets Makes Baby Jesus Cry (4.00 / 1) #47 Thu Feb 01, 2007 at 12:13:37 PM EST
"That's right!" shouted Vroomfondel, "we demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty!"

In praise of scientific certainty by Alan Crowe (2.00 / 0) #49 Fri Feb 09, 2007 at 08:14:52 AM EST
I have an idiosyncratic take on the nature of science. It is not a body of knowledge in the sense of a list of conclusions: science teaches us to believe in the big bang, science teaches us that men were descended from apes. Instead it is a body of tales of how we know not what we know.

Each tales twists together facts and analysis. Scientific laws are the patterns we find in the facts. Sometimes new facts will not fit the old patterns.

Take Relativity. Some people say Einstein was right and Newton was wrong. They go on to say that if Newton turned out to be wrong, then Einstein might turn out to be wrong, we really know very little. Then they drive away in their car refusing to think about the fact that mechanical engineering continues to use Newtons Laws.

The old facts don't go away, and if the old theory explained them well enough and is easier to understand and calculate with than the new theory then the old theory doesn't go away either.

The tale of how we know gets a new exciting twist. The facts seem to fit one pattern, but there are errors lurking, too small to measure. New forces, higher speeds, more accurate clocks, unexpected problems. The tale is all the more exciting if the old theory does a good job on the old facts. How could it possibly be wrong? But the new facts get tested and proven. The race is on to find a new theory. Which scientists will win?

If you go back to the story of the big bang, it is quite an elaborate tale. You get the distances to nearby stars by triangulation across the diameter of the earths orbit. If there had been no Cepheid variables within range the story would have ended there and we would have no real idea of the distances between galaxies.

However we can measure the distance to Cepheid variables in our own galaxy, discover that their brightness is related to their period, measure the period of Cepheid variables in other galaxies, and get a clue about the distance from their faintness.

Once we have distances to other galaxies we can relate that to red-shifts, notice Hubbles Law, and get an estimate of 5 billion years for the age of the universe.

Later we can realise that we sampling Cepheid variables very unevenly. We look at ordinary ones near by, and especially bright ones in distant galaxies. Our astronomical observations have a built in bias towards the brighter members of any class of objects. It takes a while to get the statistics right and get an age for the universe up towards 15 billion.

Errors of fact are a problem, but often the facts get checked over very thoroughly in the search for details that can be used to chose between theories. Scientific facts end up certain. Theories that explain them well have a kind of timeless validity. Even if the Big Band story unravels, the unchanging facts will fix the first half of the story. It will always start with the Cepheid variables and the way that Hubble's Law makes it look like the unverse started with a big bang 15 billion years ago, will always be part of the tale, even if the second half veers off it in very different direction.

I think that science is certain and religion is uncertain. The creation myths of religions do not have a factual basis. Even if the Big Band turns out to be wrong, text books will still have to explain why the obvious interpretation of red-shifts and distances is wrong. Once people stop believing in a God and He dies, it is all over for Him. The creation myth gets moved to the musty pile of boring old literature, never to live again.

Boring old literature? by Christopher Robin was Murdered (2.00 / 0) #50 Mon Feb 12, 2007 at 06:02:09 AM EST
I don't know. As pieces of literature, many creation myths are remarkably powerful. In fact, as literature they tend to outlive the gods that they feature within them. Dawkins is frightfully fond of pointing out that nobody believes in Thor any longer (this is, I assume, what passes for wit in the academic circles in which Dawkins travels), however, the fact that we all immediately know who Dawkins is talking about suggests that there is still something vital about the long dead god's image.

I guess I'm always thrown by these arguments for the dictatorship of logic and scientific progress because they've usually got me up until the last paragraph or so. Then they end with some horrific image of people getting carted off to loony bins, works of art and literature getting tossed into "the dust bin of history," or some similarly brutal image.

I guess they sadden me. I read them and think that, regardless of the particular brand of elite, we can depend on nothing greater from them than moldering libraries, historical forgetfulness, ideological programs, and intellectual tyranny. I don't feel warmed when contemporary fanatics fuel their bonfires with Darwin, Marx, or any of a hundred thousand other works. I doubt I'll find flames fueled by the Psalms, Blake, Dante, or Milton any of a hundred thousand others will be any more comforting.

[ Parent ]
I plead not guilty two charges by Alan Crowe (2.00 / 0) #51 Tue Feb 13, 2007 at 08:07:50 AM EST

"historical forgetfulness" I thought I was arguing that good science is a form of history: here is the tale of how we know, up to the present day.

"intellectual tyranny" I thought I was inviting people to embrace the provisional nature of scientific knowledge. You want certainty? Well the past doesn't change, so find your certainty there. Newtons Laws were the best up to 1905. That is certain.

Notice that seeing the analysis of the historical data as part of the body of knowledge invites re-analysis. A bare conclusion is hard to challenge. A historical account can bring out the delicate points that might be revisited if the conclusion seems implausible. This perspective tends to intellectual openness.

"flames fueled by the Psalms, Blake, Dante, or Milton" There is a fundamental tension between creative work and preservation of a canon. So long as the human life span remains 70 years, the creation of new work worthy of inclusion in the canon of great literature must tend to displace other work. Is this just churning, an intellectual form of treading water, or is there progress and a gradual improvement of the canon?

When I was reading The making of the atomic bomb it struck me that here was a foundational myth of the modern age. This is an epic story that will still be told a thousand years from now.

Perhaps civilisation will have collapsed, and the story will be of a golden age of heroes and villains who made super weapons, now forgotten knowledge.

Perhaps civilisation will thrive and it will be read by those curious about the origins of their nuclear powered flying cars.

The story gains mythic power from being true. While the myth of the Garden of Eden is a powerful treatment of the theme of Man being cursed by knowledge, a theme which it has in common with The Making Of The Atomic Bomb in Man, it is a much weaker story. The Garden Of Eden lacks ambiguity. Will atomic power save us from global warming and power interplanetary space ships? Or will atomic power blow us all to hell? The Garden Of Eden is somewhat contrived. What roles do the Tree of Knowledge Of Good and Evil and the snake have, beyond being needed to drive the plot. The Making Of The Atomic Bomb has a similar Deus ex machina in the way that fission of U235 gives off two or three neutrons, but this doesn't weaken the plot because it is true.

[ Parent ]
Lacks ambiguity? by Christopher Robin was Murdered (2.00 / 0) #52 Tue Feb 13, 2007 at 10:11:58 AM EST
I disagree. People have debated Genesis since it was written down.

What kind of God condemns people for craving knowledge? Are Adam and Eve equally guilty - or is he the dupe of Eve, herself the dupe of the snake? Why put the tree where everybody can get at it if nobody is supposed to get at it? God must have known humans would fall, so why set them up? Isn't he guilty too? Where's free will fit into all this, if there even is such a thing?

Only people who don't think about Genesis find it unambiguous.

As for Rhode's book, people should tell the story of the building of the A-bomb centuries from now (I don't think they will - no more than people generally know the story of the first firearms - which have certainly killed considerably more humans than the A-bomb), and I hope they do. It is an important story. But there's a reason Oppenheimer is called the "American Prometheus."

Myths and legends work on a low-resolution level because their abstraction allows us to draw mental parallels. Their value is in their lack of precision. This is why, almost 60 years after the use of the A-bomb most citizens couldn't tell you what Robert Oppenheimer looks like, but all of them could describe Godzilla – the A-bombs most enduring mythical representation.

The "truth" index of myths is, largely, irrelevant. Psyche, Narcissus, Cupid, Apollo, and millions of other fragments of our religious heritage thrive in our culture despite (perhaps even because of) the fact that nobody thinks they are "true" anymore.

These "dull" stories – not just Christianity, but a whole host of myths and religious thought – constitute an essential and vital frame work for how we communicate and think. Believer or not, these things are our cultural bedrock and, as such, have an astounding and profound value for all of us.

All I'm saying is that it saddens me whenever one of these calls to enlightenment ends with some blithe dismissal of what, up to this point in time, is the most significant and sustained human effort to find meaning and value in world around us. The thing smacks of some sort of Mao-style cultural revolution.

For the record, I actually think you'll win some day. I believe that, eventually, religion and its believers will be hounded, sequestered, drugged, treated, and otherwise cleansed from the face of your rational Earth. And with them will go all their lavish narratives and strange dreams. The libraries will be emptied of their old poems and songs.

The only thing I'm not certain of is that the world will be all the better for it.

[ Parent ]
Hoist by my own petard by Alan Crowe (4.00 / 1) #53 Wed Feb 14, 2007 at 06:38:01 AM EST

For the record, I actually think you'll win some day. I believe that, eventually, religion and its believers will be hounded, sequestered, drugged, treated, and otherwise cleansed from the face of your rational Earth.
Strangely enough I am religious and so will fall victim to the very cultural revolution I am so foolishly instigating.

I think that our deepest disagreement is revealed in this paragraph.

These "dull" stories – not just Christianity, but a whole host of myths and religious thought – constitute an essential and vital frame work for how we communicate and think. Believer or not, these things are our cultural bedrock and, as such, have an astounding and profound value for all of us.
We have shirked our duties in choosing our Canon and have ended up with a hodge-podge. Perhaps our modern Canon is a hodge-podge of great power, but if so, it is nevertheless a mixed blessing, and works powerfully for both good and ill.

This was brought home to me by the parable of Kisa Gotami. My understanding of Christian myth, acquired at Sunday School, left me with an image of religious leaders as miracle workers, for example Jesus raising Lazarus. When the Buddha is unable to restore the child to life but instead plays a cruel trick on the distraught woman he fails it. In fact I did not encounter the parable of Kisa Gotami until later in life, when I already felt the hopelessness of trying to base an adult faith on a smattering of one-off miracles. It transformed my understanding of what religion could be and why any-one would bother with it.

For you these "dull" stories are our cultural bedrock. For me they are our cultural sand, we have built our house in the wrong place.

Whoops! Once again I fall into the trap of ending with an extravagant rhetorical flourish. I really intend the more most point that the myths that under pin our culture and facilitate our communication are a mixed bag. They need work. The Canon has internal conflicts and we need to replace some of the myths with new ones.

[ Parent ]
Fair enough. by Christopher Robin was Murdered (4.00 / 1) #54 Wed Feb 14, 2007 at 03:17:30 PM EST
I guess the hodge-podge doesn't bother me. The healthiest dogs are mutts. I suspect this is true of cultures as well.

As for re-working our cultural heritage - I guess I kinda feel we do that automatically. We're constantly revising, adding to, and dropping things from our sort of collective cultural capital. We can't help but do so. And any effort to restrict this natural process of intellectual evolution - replacing it with a program of mental eugenics, in a way - makes me nervous.

I agree with you, though, that "The Canon," or whatever we want to call it, is something we should actively engage with, rather than assume its value simply by dent of its prolonged survival. That said, I would add that a cultural artifact that's centuries old must have had something going for it and we might want to examine it carefully before deciding we should throw it out.

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In Praise of Doubt | 55 comments (55 topical, 0 hidden)