Wednesday, April 6, 2011


Interesting piece in today's Speigel called "Pastor Terry Jones and the Claim to Absolute Truth." The lede summarizes the article succinctly:
Twenty people have died in the protests triggered by Pastor Terry Jones' burning of the Koran in March and more violence is likely. But both his action, and the reaction in the Muslim world share the same problematic roots: Claims to absolute truth have little place in the modern world.
As a person who has spent quite a bit of time reading, discussing and teaching about the nature of science, I'm well aware that within the sciences, claims of absolute knowledge are, for practical purposes, forbidden. The word "truth" in a scientific context raises my hackles and sets off my BS alarm.

This does not mean there aren't bits of data which I choose to treat as if they are absolute truth; Stephen J. Gould defined "fact" as follows:
Moreover, "fact" doesn't mean "absolute certainty"; there ain't no such animal in an exciting and complex world. The final proofs of logic and mathematics flow deductively from stated premises and achieve certainty only because they are not about the empirical world. Evolutionists make no claim for perpetual truth, though creationists often do (and then attack us falsely for a style of argument that they themselves favor). In science "fact" can only mean "confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional consent." I suppose that apples might start to rise tomorrow, but the possibility does not merit equal time in physics classrooms.
In other words, I treat my knowledge as an absolute basis for decision-making in the vast majority of day-to-day situations. But I have a duty to acknowledge evidence against data I consider to be "facts." Furthermore, when the outcome of my fact-based decisions may be injury or even death to another, that is not a day-to-day situation, and I have a human duty to reconsider just how certain I am about my facts, and how important I think those facts are, in the grand scheme of things.

It's all about perspective.

Absolutes are comforting, and as human beings we desire them. Our desire for them can lead us to believe they exist. But they don't. In believing that absolute knowledge can exist, and in blindly acting on the basis of that knowledge, the outcome is inevitably injury and death.

This is the basis of religion, going hand-in-hand with the guilt-assuaging certainty that when others suffer as a result of our decisions, it is because of "God's will" or "God's plan."

And unfortunately, that perspective is not limited to religion. One of this country's political parties has a whole laundry list of absolute facts that trump human life, as we saw yesterday with Ryan's "serious" budget proposal. I would be so much more optimistic if I felt that the other party was honestly willing to fight for principles and people, rather than trying to be bipartisan. Because with absolute knowledge, there is no compromise, no middle ground, no negotiation.

You can bet your life on it.



Anonymous said...

Most excellent post. I wholeheartedly agree.

Lockwood said...