Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Point of the Journey...

God, the Perimeter of ignorance

Since my last blog entry was critical of Neil deGrasse Tyson, I'd like to present a new blog that sings praises about him. For (at least three) years now, I have said that of all the popular public scientific and skeptical figures available to host a Cosmos redux, Tyson is my preferred pick, and I stand by that, The man is engaging, well-spoken, learned, likeable - in a word, charismatic, much like Dr. Sagan was. This perhaps is why I found Tyson's "Think Big" brain-fart so disappointing.

The one thing that really struck me, and what garnered most of my appreciation of him, was Dr. Tyson's talk on intelligent design, from a historical perspective and with respect to the Dover Trial.

Here is a link to the important point of the talk:
Perimeter of Ignorance (Short)

Here's a link to the longer version for the completists:
The Perimeter of Ignorance (Full)

Intrinsic Inexplicability

Tyson's depiction of God as a "perimeter of ignorance," seems to me to be a powerful point. Now, Tyson's emphasis seems to be more about intrinsic inexplicability (what is often the "mystery" gaps the "God of the Gaps" skulks about in until swept out by the latest discoveries) than anything else, but even on just that point, Tyson's talk is interesting. Intrinsic inexplicability, at least in naturalistic terms, is really the festering heart and corrupt soul of intelligent design, a positions specifically intended to halt further inquiry and set up faith (chasing its own tail) as the ultimate authority in science.

Of course what I refer to as a "festering heart and corrupt soul," theists refer to as "mystery" to be "revered" with "awe," the loss of which they mourn when science reveals more and more of the universe to be, in Tim Minchin's words, "not magic." Every inch of reality no longer shrouded in intrinsically inexplicable mystery is an inch of God's dominion being trespassed upon. This kind of thinking is the stuff of which religious opposition to science has been built upon since the early roots of scientific inquiry. It is a good part of the horror of the story "Frankenstein" by Mary Shelley. Horror is, I suspect, a concept doomed to the trash heap of history. Perhaps a topic for another time...

Faith-Based Evidence

In the United States of the Bush(-league) regime, we saw an even nastier effort to depict faith as scientific evidence (so called "Faith-based evidence"), which is an inevitable sidekick to the cdesignproponentist (Intelligent Design) efforts. The inclusion of faith-based evidence as scientific evidence would, of course, undermine science as an empirical study altogether, since faith is quite anti-empirical in its emphasis. This was, of course, the desire of the religious right at the time.

Perimeter of Ignorance Redux

Of course, I want to take it a step further - from my philosophical skeptical perspective. This is not really just about God, as an ad hoc explanatory device when we assume we cannot and/or will not ever be able to explain something - and by explain I mean in a way that provides predictive power - but rather what God is a symbol of in the context of human understanding.

God is a substitute for knowledge and truth and an excuse to stop exploring. It acts as an explanation, albeit an abysmally useless one, and leaves us "satisfied" that no further exploration is necessary or desireable. God is a poor substitute for explanations for reasons I've gone into in another blogpost ("A Need to Know Basis") about the nature of explanations and scientific theories and the differences in predictive power offered by each (or lack thereof, in the case of "God's Will"). Indeed, it is a recurrent theme for me so far.

God is a symbol for truth, and it appears that God is a perimeter of ignorance in part because of this. After all if one thinks one has the truth, there is no further cause for inquiry, is there? I put it to you that truth itself is the perimeter of ignorance, of which God is only a symbol. A faith-based understanding of reality confuses the conceit of knowledge with actual knowledge and hence removes opportunity to acquire a more thorough, and empirically accurate understanding of reality.

No Truth?

If certain knowledge is unattainable, then is not a skeptical perspective doomed to failure?

Science has at its core skepticism, an understanding that we do not have certain knowledge, in other words that we do not have the definitive truth. We have explanatory devices (theories) that are better supported by evidence than others, perhaps overwhelmingly so, but at no time do we say that there is nothing more to explore or that we are now certain. A theory can be overturned, modified, or replaced, if it fails to agree with experimental results and empirical observations, or if a better one (more in line with experimental results and empirical observations) arises. Hence, inquiry is always an ongoing process. So, in effect, it is assumed (posited) that there is a truth (realism), but that we never know it with certainty, Now, does this mean that the entire enterprise is meaningless? After all, what is the point of seeking truth is we assume, a priori as it were (justified or otherwise), that we cannot ever reach certain truth? Well, it turns out that, like the NASA space program for example, there are benefits to be gained along the way. Whatever the goal or goals, the explorations themselves reap rewards, rewards like tripled lifespans, world-spanning communications networks, life quality improvements, etc., etc., etc...

What's really interesting about this, and as odd as it sounds, is that seeking truth using a scientific, error-correction methodology while assuming we never have truth reaps results and rewards undreamed of (indeed deliberately undreamed of) by pre-science religious investigations into vague, mystical (almost invariably analytical only) metaphysics. Having this tension works, perhaps because whatever else is at work, at least we continue our interrogations of the universe, whereas with God and other truth symbols, inquiry halts. It's not just the method of science that makes it work. It's the ongoing inquiry itself - and that is where the skepticism comes into play.

The road goes ever on and on. Perhaps the point of the journey is not to arrive...

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