Archive for the ‘Science and religion’ Category

No defenders of “Truth”?

March 7, 2010

I am not terribly surprised. But it is surprising. “Truth” is a very popular word. You can say the most awful thing about some one and should you be queried why, the most common defense is “It’s the Truth!” Scientists claim it. Relgionists claim it. But no one will defend it?

I have raised the question that one should be careful in the use of language, suggesting that some easily and commonly made word conversions, like nominalizations, are correctly critisizable on the basis of whether or not they map something that actually happens in the world. Here is a another opinion:

“Once the human intellect creates  symbols from reality, those symbols or words can be manipulated and catalogued to increase our understanding of reality. “(The Trivium: The liberal arts of logic, grammar and rhetoric : Sister Miriam Joseph  (Paul Dry Books Edition 2002)) p.24

I think this statement is true, but I’m sure it is not the whole story.

Unfortunately, when you try to tell the whole story, the language begins to bend around on itself, like the proverbial snake biting its own tail. We can find our way out of the confusion with a map.

In fact, that is where I got started in this whole business, talking about maps with students in the classroom. First, draw a map of how to get from home to school. Then go on to written messages versus maps, visual and verbal problem solving, right brain and left brain, algebra and geometry, grammar and vocabulary of maps. It took two class periods altogether. Toward the end I would ask who drew a perfect map. Usually no response. Sometimes “What do you mean by perfect?”

My response: If it solves the problem of instructing someone how to get to your place, it is perfect. Now several people volunteer that their maps were perfect in that sense. But still imperfect in two basic ways: uniformity of scale, and suppression of detail. So I point out that the utility of the map for solving a real world problem is directly dependent on those very distortions. A map that was free of all distortions and that fully recorded every detail of existence, were it possible to construct such a map, such a map would be useless for guiding the person to your place. It would be like pushing them out the door and saying Try!

So is the map true? Most student said yes. If it solved the problem, it was true.

The ethical question comes up when you ask “What if you made this map and somebody used it and got lost because of some distortion you put on the map, and suffered harm because of getting lost. Whose fault is it? Now there is some debate

But if the map were the Truth, there is no debate. It’s the traveler’s fault for getting lost.

A map, which is a statement in visual language, can be true. A statement in verbal language can be true. The word “true” is an adjective, and as such, in my limited understanding of such matters, in the jargon of Aristotelian thought, is an accident that is a property of a substance, like the blue color of the mineral azurite. The nominalization of the adjective to the noun, “Truth”, brings forth a substance, something that exists in and of itself.

But would Aristotle approve of this switching from accident to substance? In conversation with a knowledgeable friend, I was reminded that nominalization was introduced into English by the Norman Invasion (1066 CE).  Before that, the Anglo-Saxons who were uttering the forerunners of English had no such word as truth! No wonder they lost.

Which brings up the always underlying historical question:”When did it come to be the way it is now?” Could Aristotle conceivably approve the moving of an idea from one kind of Platonic entity (accident) to another (substance)?

The substance , being substance, can be possessed by some, and not by others. Those that possess it are exalted in power and held blameless for the execution of that power, no matter how hurtful. Those that do not possess it are debased and held responsible for their own misery.

One could become cynical about it all. I prefer to remain a skeptical optimist. I am skeptical of all maps, visual, verbal, mathematical, whatever, knowing that they can only imperfectly capture the actuality of the existent world. I am optimistic that the human community will continue its quest to create ever more precise and subtle maps to solve the problems that bear down on us in our actual existence.

The virtual world created by words has enthralled us for millenia.

Once upon a time....

But somewhere there is a baby crying.

Enough of this eclectic plagiodoxic rambling!


A plagiodox view

October 16, 2008

Recently, Michael Reiss lost his position as Director of Education for the Royal Society because of how people reacted to what some people in the press said about what he said at a recent conference. I think I have that straight.

I have read the document that he prepared and submitted ahead of time. Assuming he said orally something pretty close to what he wrote, it is clear to me that his comments were a pretext for the precipitation of the conflict, rather than a reason. “Let’s you and him fight!” is the name of that game. Given that the media makes its living, in part, by reporting on fights, their actions are understandable, if unfortunate.

Conflict is, of course, part of the living experience of any organism that lives in a social relationship based on dominance hierarchies. Every individual spends some energy working on dominance relationships as well as cooperative relationships. And every individual draws a unique balance between these two activities, cooperation vs. dominance.

The tension between “science” and “religion” draws some very intense interest in parts of the population today. That tension provokes conflict between individuals, who take up different sides in the metaphorical struggle. Whether or not the conflict will ultimately be productive is unclear.

To me, the struggle is, in part, internal and personal. And I have been a human being long enough to be convinced that all metaphorical struggles are partly projections of internal and personal struggles. The dimensions of the struggle are expressed, at least in part, by how one responds to two problems:

  • What is true vs. what is not true.
  • What might work vs. what we can be certain wont work.

Science is much better at answering questions in the negative. As I have said before (Not…), we can say with much greater certainty that the Earth is not flat than we can say what precise shape it actually has. It seems to me that if we take falsification seriously as a working rule of science, we have to admit that science is much more attuned to saying what is not true than saying what is true. By the same reasoning, we can say with greater certainty in any new problem situation what wont work than what will work.

In the reality of life, one is confronted with problems. It is very nice to be able to sort the possible solutions into two piles: those we are sure wont work, and all the rest. But how do we choose between the alternatives in “all the rest”?

You try to find the alternative that, if it fails and catasrophe follows, you can reconcile yourself to the consequences. That, of course, requires an inward search. And humility.