I recently attended a Meetup where the subject was “Blinded by Science?” Talking with our mouths full of excellent Chinese food, we considered whether denizens of the First World are so in the thrall of science that we are blind to alternatives.
It seems to me that we have three choices to discover the truth of things: myth, meth and math.
Myth is the old “way of knowing.” Usually, a myth is part of a culture (a meme!). The cohesive and coercive powers of culture can make people believe a myth literally, even when it is utterly fantastic to outsiders.
A myth can incorporate a lot of wisdom as generation after generation hones it. The problem is, we have learned from experience that myths are extremely unreliable sources of literal truth. For example, every culture has its creation myth, and they are all wrong if taken literally. (If you’re a believer in the literal truth of one of these stories, we can agree that all the ones except yours are wrong. That’s still a lot of wrong.)
Some cultures or sub-cultures turn to mind-altering drugs or numinous experiences in their search for enlightenment. After smoking enough, or fasting enough, enlightenment arrives.
I don’t know about you, but my mind is at its worst when I’m hungry, and what people say while doped up is notoriously nonsensical or funny. (You must follow that second link! Update 4/9: the second link is now to Nina’s funnier video.)
To be fair, I must mention an essay called Mr. X, by no less a personage than Carl Sagan. It turns out that Dr. Sagan was an occasional consumer of cannabis. Mixed with visions of Volkswagens on the ceiling, he did get real insights on a variety of topics while high! However, his high self had to work very hard to convince his down self that the insights were valid.
And that is the real problem for so-called alternative ways of knowing. Spinning insights is easy, but how do you know they’re true?
Humans have wandered the landscape of epistemology for many thousands of years. We have always preferred the comforts of myth, intuition, tradition and religion. When it comes to acquiring or testing knowledge, we are basically lazy. Most of us would rather accept whatever body of received wisdom happens to be part of our culture, than do the hard and dangerous work of testing that wisdom against reality. We prefer “knowing in our heart” to the scientific method.
Yet the success of the few who have been brave enough to subject their hypotheses to scrutiny has been undeniable. In spite of threats of torture in the past and appalling innumeracy in the general population at present, they have made more headway in the last 500 years than all of humanity did in the million years since we first used fire.
It turns out that the universe is structured around neither myth nor meth, but math. It obeys laws that can be expressed in (usually) simple equations whose truth can be tested. Even in soft disciplines like philosophy, the tools of mathematical logic help us cut through the nonsense of superstition and “mystery.” In my series on The Selfish Gene, we saw how the mathematics of game theory neatly explain something as apparently non-mathematical as altruism.
Myth and numinous experiences may have their place, but when it comes to discovering how things really work, or testing whether things are true, nothing has the track record of science and math.
On that, even the most ardent new-ager at the Meetup had to agree. What do you think?