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Knowledge and Faith in the Multiverse
originally posted: May 16, 2007
1. IntroductionWhat is knowledge? What is it good for? How do we know if it is true? What is faith? How is it like and unlike knowledge?
The area of inquiry that tries to address questions like these is called "epistemology." Most of it involves of a lot of talk about Truth with a capital "T" which always annoys the heck out of me. I am, by constitution, not a believer but a doubter. The list of things I've found that I cannot doubt, pretty much begins and ends with my own existence. Cogito ergo sum and I'm done. Absolute truth is so inaccessible, that it seems to me that there is very little point in talking about it. Truth is pretty much irrelevant to human thought.
But you can't live a life believing nothing and knowing nothing. You need to make a leap of faith, believing in some doubtful things. In a world of dubious semi-truths, I need to choose some semi-truths to hang my hat on. In this article I attempt to establish my criteria for making such choices, how you can have facts without certainties, faith amid doubt.
I originally started writing this as an introductory section for an essay on belief in God, but it grew too long to be a section, and I broke it out as this separate article.
2. Axiomatic SystemsWhen we want to convince someone that something is true, we usually try to offer some form of proof. The proofs that have been offered that the earth is round seem to convince more people than the proofs that have been offered for God's existence, so clearly not all proofs are equal. What is a proof?
A useful place to start is with what is probably the second most important and influential book in the history of western civilization, Euclid's Elements. At first glance, Euclid's book is just about as dull and dry as a book could be. The title hardly gives a clue to the subject matter (though all the thousands of textbooks named The Elements of This or The Elements of That are all in homage to Euclid). Euclid provided no introduction, no section headings, and not a word of commentary. The first page starts straight in with a list of definitions. "A point is that which has no part." "A line is breadthless length." After twenty-three definitions, come five axioms, or postulates. Modernizing the language slightly, he says:
Let the following be postulated:After these five axioms, Euclid states five common notions, like "the whole is greater than the part." He then states and proves theorem one, that an equilateral triangle can be constructed on any finite line segment. After that for the rest of the book, it is just one theorem after the other, each with a proof carefully built so that every logical step can be justified based on one of the preceeding definitions, axioms, common notions, or theorems. Theorem 32, for instance, proves that the angles in a triangle add to 180 degrees, and theorem 47 proves the Pythagorean theorem, ("the square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the two sides").
For two thousand years, no westerner would have been considered educated who had not studied Euclid, not simply for the knowledge of geometry, but because of the value of Euclid's approach. Euclid defined his terms, clearly stated his assumptions, and rigorously proved everything from those roots. This stunningly beautiful book, which starts from so little to build so much, is the root of all modern mathematics, and of a great deal of modern science. There is a little Euclid involved whenever anyone talks of proving anything.
3. Facts, Truth, and Infinite RegressAre Euclid's results facts? In one sense they certainly are. The Pythagorean theorem is true whenever Euclid's axioms are true. This is an absolute, tautological truth. Accept Euclid's definitions, axioms, and common notions, and you must accept the Pythagorean Theorem. I'm going to use the word "fact" to identify ideas that are definitely true within their particular systems. The Pythagorean Theorem is a fact of Euclidean geometry, but it isn't a fact of spherical geometry.
But that isn't really what we want to know. A carpenter building a house will want to know if he can apply the Pythagorean theorem when he calculates the number of shingles he will need. He wants to know not simply if the Pythagorean Theorem works in a Euclidean universe, but whether it works in the real universe that contains the house. Only if it is true in the real universe will we want to call it a "truth".
We know the carpenter can use the Pythagorean theorem if Euclid's five axioms are true in his neighborhood. But how do we know if they are?
Well, we could try to develop some kind of proof that the axioms hold. But all proofs have to start from some set of axioms. That's what proofs do, they allow you to derive new knowledge from old knowledge. They do not allow you to create knowledge out of nothing.
So how are we going to know that the axioms that we use to prove Euclid's axioms are true? Prove them from some other set of axioms? That is hopeless. It just leads to infinite regress and never really proves anything to be true in the absolute sense.
4. How We Evaluate AxiomsBut we do, in fact, seem to have the ability to evaluate axioms. Euclid had some basis for choosing his five axioms from among all other geometrical statements. The Elements doesn't even raise the question, but presumably he wouldn't have chosen those particular axioms if they hadn't seemed to him to be a description of the real world. Most of his readers for thousands of years believed they were true.
But there has always been some question, especially about axiom five, the so-called "parallel postulate." Euclid himself seems to have been a bit suspicious of it, since he avoided using it for as long as he could, completing his first 28 proofs without reference to it. Generations of mathematicians tried to reformulate it or eliminate it. It just didn't seem as obviously true as the rest.
How do people decide that some things, like axiom five, are just a bit less credible than others, like axiom one? Many kinds of arguments have been put forth. Here are some of them.
These kinds of "reasons" for believing Euclid's axioms are none of them entirely convincing. Nobody would seriously want to say that because some idea satisfies numbers 1, 3 and 4 on this list, it must certainly be true. These ideas could certainly mislead us.
In fact, eventually it was discovered that if you replaced Euclid's fifth axiom with different, contradictory statements about parallel lines, you got whole different systems of geometries. Then Einstein's theory of relativity proposed, among other surprising things, that in the real world these non-Euclidean geometries, not Euclid's geometry, were the correct ones. Einstein said gravitational fields distort space so that parallel lines aren't necessarily parallel and later experimental evidence backed him up. In the realms of astronomical computations, such as in the software used in GPS systems, you need to use non-Euclidean geometry to get the right answers. Euclid's geometry, while still beautiful and a good approximation of the way things work in the geometry of daily life, is not, after all, true in the real world.
5. Some Fundamental AxiomsIf I were to be bold enough to try to unify the kinds of rough arguments for believability presented in the previous section into formal proofs, then I'd need to state some axioms about the nature of the universe, upon which those proofs rest.
Figuring out exactly what those axioms should be and how exactly they should be formulated is more than I'm ready to do, or ever expect to be ready to do, but I have a set of candidate axioms that I'd like to suggest. We'll call them "Things I Believe," or "TIBs" for short.
Things I Believe:Here the two top-level statements are probably candidate axioms, and the lower-level statements are probably useful correlaries that I think follow from them.
These are all rooted in a belief that this business of living in a universe is essentially a worthwhile enterprise. If there is no truth whatsoever in these statements, then I might as well kill myself swiftly and be done with it. For life to be worth living, then we must believe (1) that it is possible for us to make sense of all this sensory input we receive, and (2) that doing so is somehow worth the bother.
Is the universe humanly comprehensible? That really seems unlikely. The universe is so big, and our minds are so small. But we kind of need to believe that there is a chance of figuring some of it out, otherwise we'd have no recourse except to go huddle in a corner and hope that nothing hits us.
There really isn't any hope of comprehending the universe unless TIB 1a is true, that the universe, large and complex as it is, rests on some some small set of consistant, comprehensible rules, that we can hope to discover.
One of the basic limitations of being human is that all our knowledge of the universe is of the past, but we must choose our actions based on their effects in the future. So our information is from the past, but our interest is in the future. The only way to cope with this is to believe in TIB 1b, that the past is a useful predictor of the future. Only our belief in that allows us to use our experience as any kind of guide in deciding what to believe and what to do. Yes, one might claim that in the past our experience has been a good guide for us, but how does that prove that it will be in the future? Only our unsupported belief in TIB 1b lets us learn from experience.
Really TIB 1b and TIB 1c are just restatements of TIB 1a. You couldn't really say that the universe was governed by a simple set of laws, if those laws varied unpredictably with time and space. But it's worth clarifying that you need to believe in some axioms before you can start investigating the truth of an idea even by so simple a procedure as testing it experimentally.
TIB 2 claims that some reason exists to make life worth living. You could, in theory, take the solipsist view that your mind is the only thing that exists. Everything else is, essentially, a figment of your imagination. It's not a claim that can be disproved, but it certainly would make life dull, so I choose not to believe it.
The essential thing, I believe, that has to be true for life in the universe to be interesting is for me not to be alone here. There must be other minds here. I don't care so much whether or not trees falling in the forest make a sound when nobody is listening. I don't care if the rock I pick up in my hand actually exists in some absolute sense independent of perception, or whether it is just something that me and the person I throw it at agree exists. Whether the universe is real, or only a linguistic framework within which minds can communicate, it's still worth my attention as long as the other minds in it, including past and future minds, are real. That's TIB 2a.
Now, one might imagine that the universe contains only a few minds. Maybe just me and God. Everything else is a test God set up for me, or something like that. I suppose that's an improvement over solipsism, but I'd prefer to believe that my friends and my relatives are every bit as real as I am, that the feelings I think they have are real feelings, and that they matter as much as my own feelings do, that they are as real as I am. I can't prove it, but I don't care to live this life if it isn't so, so I need TIB 2b.
So here we have a set of things that I believe firmly and fervently. I base my every thought and action on them. If I was ever proven wrong, I'd cry out in agony, feeling betrayed by the universe. At the same time, I readily admit that I haven't got the slightest bit of evidence that any of them are true. Viewed dispassionately, I'd have to say that many of them are actually quite implausible, bordering even on the ridiculous, but I insist on believing them anyway.
With this set of statements, I've reached a level where I no longer am feeling compelled to look for proof that these axioms are true. I want to believe them, and I want it so strongly that I'm entirely prepared to accept them without proof, in spite of anything anyone might say against them.
What's the word for a belief like that? I don't think there is a word in the English language that fits better than "faith."
So in the end, I find I must accept the idea of faith as the only possible end to the the problem of infinite regress. Ultimately, for anyone to believe anything, they must believe something without reason. They must have faith.
I believe that faith is best understood not as a form of knowledge, but as a form of hope. When you hope that something is true so sincerely that you find it necessary to act as if it is the truth, then that is faith. We all do that. It is an essential part of being human.
This opens up a problem, however. If all human knowledge rests ultimately on faith, then how do we resolve disagreements? One person believes one thing. Another person believes the opposite. Both are ultimately entirely a matter of faith. Christianity rests on faith. Astrology rests on faith. Physics rests on faith. So what's the difference? Maybe my set of axioms tends to favor physics over the others, but I'm incapable of proving that my axioms are true, so why should anyone listen to me? If everything rests on faith, then why aren't all conclusions equally right, or equally wrong?
6. The Subjective MultiverseUp till now, we've talked about how we determine whether our theories about the behavior of the real universe are true. But in doing that, we are really only looking at a small part of what goes on in our minds. We use our brains for a lot more than formulating a theory about the real world.
To broaden this discussion, I'd like to put forth some alternate terminology, reframing the contents of our minds as a collection of private universes.
We live in the real universe, what we might call the physical universe, or the objective universe. Some physicists have theorized that there is actually more than one, that there is a multiverse of universes, but for our purposes we are only interested in one, the one we live in. It provides us with standard of truth, a common point of reference for all the minds in it, and a medium of communication between those minds. It is the main focus of our interest, because events in the objective universe bring us into being and eventually destroy us (or maybe shift us to an alternate universe named Heaven or Hell, which some theologians have speculated about).
In each of our minds, we build mental models of the objective universe. These represent our best understanding of the real universe. We use these models to plan our actions. We want very much for them to match up well with the objective universe, because when when they don't, our plans tend to misfire, and the real universe delivers us unpleasant surprises. I'm going to call this model of the universe a "private universe".
I think it is reasonable to say that even simple animals have a private universe representing the real universe. When you turn on the light in the kitchen, cockroaches scuttle for the shadows in a manner that strongly suggest that they have some kind of mental map of the kitchen. That's a private universe.
Humans, however, have the special ability to simultaneously maintain many private universes. I can simultaneously hold in my mind a model of a Euclidean universe, and a non-Euclidean universe. I can apportion my belief among them, and use them selectively in understanding the real universe.
I have many other private universes available to me. I have in my mind a universe that represents my wife's world view, another that represents the Christian world view, and one that represents the nihilist world view. In these cases, I evaluate their "truth" not by how well they model the real universe, but by how well they model the primary private universes of other people.
I also have in my mind some universes that I don't consider true at all, but which I still value. I have the universe of Thomas the Tank Engine, which at one time provided very handy context for having discussions with my son about all sorts of things, but which has lately fallen into disuse. I have my versions of Tolkian's Middle Earth, Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek, and J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter. I also have some other fictional universes of my own invention that I may manage to turn into novels of my own some day.
I have also have a private universe which models the way the real universe might be if global warming is not checked. That universe lies somewhere between being a model of the real universe, and being a purely invented fiction.
The great majority of these private universes are not actually all that private. Other people have their own versions of them, that are very similar. We spend a lot of effort maintaining the similarity of our universes by talking about them. We tell each other it is a nice day out, helping to match up our views of the world. My wife and I exchange views on the edibility of artichokes and modify our models of each other's world view to match. People discuss whether or not Christianity can accommodate homosexuality, and in the process evolve their understanding of the universe of Christian morality. We even discuss Frodo's relationship with Samwise and Gollum, trying to improve our own understanding of Middle Earth or trying to shift other people's understanding closer to our own.
The result of this endless syncing up of world views creates another kind of universe, a shared universe. A shared universe is a mutually agreed on universe of discourse, actively maintained through the exchange of ideas among some set of participants in a conversation. I can change around any of my private universes just by changing my mind, but to change a shared universe, I need to construct an argument that will convince the other participants to change their minds too.
So, we have two basic ways of constructing and improving the private universes that we use to model the real universe. The first is by direct personal experience of the real universe. We observe the real universe, and use those observations to fill in gaps in our private models of the universe. When we notice disagreements between our private universe and the real universe, we may modify our private universe, or we may dismiss the disagreement as an illusion and hold to our private universe anyway. In this way, we take input from the real universe.
The second way is to take input from the shared universes constructed by other people. An awful lot of my understanding of the universe does not come directly from personal experience. I haven't personally collected enough evidence to make a compelling case that the earth is round. The ability of humans to construct these shared universes, and pass them from person to person, and from generation to generation, with continual improvement, is an awesome advantage, enabling us to construct much better understandings of the real universe than we ever could have on our own.
In practice, these two ways of modifying our private universes always interact. When we learn something new about the real world, our instinct is always to go out and tell people about it, to spread the news, and maybe to find out if others also perceive this discovery as useful, or can add to it or clarify it. When we encounter something new in the shared universe, we think about whether it is consistent with our personal experience. I may not be able to prove that the world is round from my experience, but I know there is nothing in my experience that is inconsistent with that belief. I've never stood at the edge of the world and looked off. If I had, I'd probably not accept the consensus on that point.
7. Facts in Shared UniversesSo let's return to the question of how there can be any such thing as a fact when all assessments of truth are ultimately based on faith.
As we said before, it really only makes sense to talk about facts within a particular domain of discourse. The set of facts within the universe of Euclidean geometry are different than the set of facts within the the universe of spherical geometry.
So, within a universe, anything consistent with the assumptions of that universe is a fact. If you claim that witches fly on broomsticks within a particular universe, then the only way I can prove you wrong is to show that that statement contradicts the axioms of that universe, or that it contradicts any other supposed facts in that universe. If it is an axiom of your private universe that that witches fly on broomsticks, then I can't argue with you at all.
But, then, why would I want to? If it's your private universe, it's no skin off my nose what you want to treat as a fact within it. I only care if you assert that this is a fact within a shared universe that both of us are part of. If you say that we should all believe that witches fly on broomsticks in the real world, then you are asking us to alter our shared model of the real universe, and then I'll beg to differ. If you say that witches ride broomsticks in the Harry Potter universe, then I'll happily agree. The need for a way to resolve questions over whether a statement is true or not exists only when we are talking about shared universes, not when we are talking about a private universe. Only there do we need to be able to come to consensus on what is true.
To participate in a conversation about a shared reality, you need to be willing to accept it's axioms, at least provisionally. If a group of people are debating the properties of broomsticks in the universe of Harry Potter, and I come in and say, "there is no such thing in real life as a flying broomstick, so they have no properties," then I have failed to accept the axioms of the conversation. Everyone may agree that that is a fact in the real universe, but the conversation is not about the real universe. It is about a different shared universe with different axioms, and my comment is a blazing irrelevancy, not a penetrating insight. I have failed to participate in the conversation. To participate in a "Harry Potter" conversation, I need to know the works of J. K. Rowling, and I need to be prepared to take them as facts for the purposes of that conversation.
What axioms do I need to be willing to accept to be able to participate in a conversation about that most interesting of all shared realities, my community's best approximation of what is real? Can you join the discussion of what is true with any set of axioms you like? No, in fact, you can't.
To be able to join such a discussion, you need to be willing to concede a number of things. You need to believe that it is possible to construct a model of the real universe. You need to believe that it is worthwhile to attempt to do so. You need to believe that there are other people for you to be holding the conversation with. Lo and behold, you need to believe in the Things I Believe.
Imagine having a conversation with a set of people who don't believe in my list of Things I Believe. One fellow doesn't believe that it is possible to understand things. Another doesn't believe the conversation is worth having. Some gal doesn't believe that any of the other people in the conversation actually exist. It's a pretty hopeless mess. The very idea of having a conversation kind of requires that there be a subject that can be talked about, and more than one participant. Without admitting that, you can't really be in the conversation.
The fact that you, the reader, are bothering to read this, and I, the writer, am bothering to write it, implies that there is some common ground between us. I'm guessing that the only thing most of my readers found strange about my list of TIBs is that I bothered to question them at all, that I identified them as things that required faith to believe, when they are things that, one way or another, everyone believes. Well, everyone worth talking to does, which is why they are important.
In this sense, the "Things I Believe" turn out to be very powerful. Whenever we hold a conversation about what is true, some version of these ideas must believed by everyone present, or else they wouldn't be present. That fact doesn't prove that the axioms are, in fact, true, just that they can be taken as agreed upon. If you are joining the discussion about truth, then you have already conceded that you believe in these things are true in some sense. If you contradict them in your arguments, then you aren't going to have much credibility.
8. The Power of ScienceIn the long evolution of our shared model of reality, few methodologies have been as powerful in reshaping our understanding of the universe as the the scientific method has been. Repeatedly scientists have proposed radical changes to humanity's understanding of reality, and by and large, humanity has accepted those changes.
I think the story of science really begins with the printing press. The ability to cheaply reproduce text and distribute it widely provided humanity with a tool to build shared universes vastly larger then any one human being can fully understand. The whole body of knowledge that we call science isn't held in any one person's head. Most people have a good grasp of the general principles of the major fields of knowledge, but only specialists know all the detail of any particular area. It's the magic of the printing press and the publishing industry that provided the glue that holds it all together, allowing scientist to keep track of what other scientists with overlapping specialties are learning, and providing an archival reference, by which any one can, at least in theory, access any piece of scientific knowledge. The printing press spelled the end of "Renaissance men" like da Vinci who seemed to know almost everything there was to know, and the beginning of modern science.
As the printing press made it possible for more people to widely publish their ideas, more different theories won wide dissemination. Ptolemy's astronomy suddenly had to compete with new books by people like Copernicus and Galileo. All the books were read by more people than ever before, who raised more questions. Many ideas that had stood for thousands of years were finally discarded. Only the very most effective arguments could win out in this competitive environment.
One of the characteristics of effective arguments is that they rely as much as possible on the shared axioms of the people in the conversation. As we discussed in the previous section, the axioms that can generally be counted on in conversations about the nature of reality tend are the TIBs. Much of modern science rests on extensions and generalizations of the TIBs.
For instance, early geographers observed that there were fossils of sea shells on mountain tops. This suggested to them that there had been gigantic upheavals in the earth's past, quite unlike anything seen in modern times. James Hutton overthrew this notion and asserted a principle of uniformitarianism, which says that the natural processes in the past were the same ones that we observe operating in the present. Rather than explaining geology by resorting to claims of radical catastrophic events unlike anything seen in modern times (like global floods), he resolved these problems simply by declaring the earth to be vastly older than previously assumed, allowing time for the slow evolution of the landscape that we always see around us to accumulate and create the remarkable effects we see in the geological record.
We all believe in TIB 1b, which says that our past experience is applicable in planning the future. The idea that we can use our experience of the present to formulate theories about what happened in the past, perhaps before we were even born, is closely related, and should likely be listed as another corollary of TIB 1. Hutton took that idea, common to everyone who has an interest in any kind of history, and built his whole history of the world on it. To do that, he had to discard ideas about the age of the world based on the Bible, but his faith in the uniformity of the universe was stronger than his faith in the accuracy of arcane calculations loosely based on the supposed word of creator. His argument is automatically compelling to anyone interested in investigating the history of the universe by studying the universe as it exists today, because without that assumption, the whole project would be impossible. If unknown processes could have been operating in the past, then anything might have happened and our chances of figuring out the past are nil.
Some modern creationists still believe that the Earth is about 6,000 years old. There are really only two ways to explain this. The first is by complete abandonment of common sense, simply closing one's eyes to the vast collection of evidence that exists for an old earth. The second is by discarding uniformitarianism. You can claim, for example, that the Earth was created 6,000 years ago, fully formed, with fossils of creatures that never existed already embedded in the stone. In this view, all the evidence for the evolution of life on a old Earth was carefully rigged by God to mislead the faithless fools who look for God's word in his creation rather than in the words spoken by his prophets. But any variation of this kind of argument implies that it is actually impossible to understand the history of the world by studying its current form. The past can only be understood through the word of God. In other words, it means that the scientific study of the history of the universe is fundamentally impossible. Creationism in this form holds at it's core a basic rejection of science.
Now, I'll happily admit that Science cannot prove that it's method of investigating the past based on observations of the present is a valid one, or that the conclusions it has come to using those methods are truths. Whether you believe in evolution or creationism is ultimately a question of faith. But I flatly reject the claim that creationism is science. No scientific theory can operate by rejecting the fundamental methods of science. Evolution is a scientific fact in the strongest sense possible. Creation is a perfectly good fact of Christian theology, where the set of axioms is different, but it is straight out nonsense to propose it as a scientific fact.
The desire to present creationism as a scientific fact derives from the fact that an awful lot of people these days equate "scientific fact" with "truth". We live in a world of cell phones, airplanes, and genetic testing. It's all tied together in this vast interconnected body of knowledge called science. Taken together, it is overwhelmingly compelling. Maybe for some people it is all just magic. They believe in it without understanding any of it, and are inclined to believe that most of what the providers of all this wonder say is true, just based on past success. More sophisticated people believe it because they believe in the validity of the processes used to develop this knowledge, though they know that process is not complete.
So, these days, if you try to convince people that your religious beliefs are true, then they are likely to ask you if you have scientific proof, because one way or another, they are all believers in science. Pretending that anti-science is science is useful for fooling people who don't really understand what science is, but singularly ineffective for the rest. Anybody can claim to have the truth, and you won't be able to prove him wrong. But if you claim you have a scientific fact, then that is something that can be proven or disproven, and as far as creation theory goes, it's dead in the water.
These kinds "scientific theories" are the equivalent to saying that "there's no such thing as broomsticks" in a discussion of Harry Potter. They implicitly reject the whole framework of the discussion. If you want to reject science, that's your perogative, but you can't do it while claiming to be a scientist. That's nothing but sheer intellectual dishonesty.
I personally think that believers in a Creator would do better to take scientific facts as a revelation that their God is bigger and more sophisticated than they had ever previously believed. It turns out that what God must have created was not just a few crystal spheres, but a universe that spans at least 78 billion light years and which may well be infinite. That universe is not centered on human beings, but may well encompass billions of other worlds. The creation was not 6000 years ago, but rather tens of billions of years ago. God did not create men and animals by forming the out of clay and breathing life into them, but by arranging the fundamental laws of the universe so that life would form and organize itself spontaneously.
To reject these findings on the basis of your faith in God is to say that you can believe only in a little, pocket-sized God who does things on a small scale readily imagined by humans. None of it actually contradicts faith in divine creator, so long as you are willing to concede that that creator is vastly more powerful and subtle than the portrayal that appears in the Book of Genesis.
Maybe that's exactly the kind of universe that some people do hope to live in. A small, easily understood one with clear rules, as safe and orderly as a classroom in a sunday school. Personally, I'm not prepared to saw such great hunks off the universe just to ensure myself a cosy seat with God not too far away. I like living in mind-blowingly big, rich universe.
9. Truth Isn't EverythingThe way ideas develop in a shared universe has often been compared to an evolutionary process. New ideas and new variations of ideas are proposed in great profusion. Most of them are quickly forgotten, but a few capture the imagination of more and more people, becoming a lasting part of the shared universe. These ideas are in some vital way more "fit" than other competing ideas.
But what makes one idea more "fit" than another? Well, if the business at hand is the search for a description of the real universe, then we would certainly prefer if the idea was true. But we can't really determine truth. All we can determine is if the idea is consistent with the other things we believe about the universe. And that's actually a pretty weak test. All sorts of facts can be stated. "My pen is black." "There are 112,724 hairs on my head." Only a tiny minority of them strike people as so compelling that they write them into all the textbooks.
The fact that factors other than truth are involved in selecting ideas is even more obvious if we look at ideas in other shared universes, like the universe of Shakespearean criticism. Sigmund Freud once argued that Hamlet hesitated in killing Claudius because Claudius had re-enacted Hamlet's own childish fantasies of killing his father and marrying his mother. That idea may not be widely accepted today, but if you're any kind of student of literature, you'll have run across it. Of course, nobody would literally believe it to be true, since Hamlet never existed and was thus pretty definately immune from Oedipal urges. It can be believed true only in a round-about way, where the Oedipal urges Freud is talking about are actually present in man who invented Hamlet and the audiences who are fascinated by him. But when we assess an idea like this, we don't really go through all those permutations. What we think about is simpler. Does this idea help us make sense of this story?
Ideas then, are linguistic tools. We value tools that are easily grasped and can be readily used to give us leverage in solving a wide variety of problems. Freud constructed his psychology as a tool for psychoanalysis. He and his followers believed it to be a very powerful tool, so powerful that it could give good results in many areas, including literary criticism.
I think that this is really the way that we assess the value of an idea in practice. Can I use it? Does it help me to more precisely describe the things that I want to talk about? Does it let me express myself more clearly? Does it win me deeper insight into subjects I care about? Does it help me to more effectively win people over to my point of view?
Certainly truth is important. Ideas that don't seem in some sense true aren't going to have much linguistic power. But not all facts are created equal. The great majority ("my pen is black") have very little linguistic power.
Evolutionary theory is a perfect example of a powerful idea. The basic concept is fairly simple. If you have a system where things are reproduced, mostly faithfully but with some variation, and where things are selected, so that they are more likely to reproduce if they have certain characteristics, then things with those characteristics will come to dominate. Over time, quite dramatic improvement can be achieved this way.
The idea that living things on the Earth developed this way has proven extremely powerful. Biology, ecology, archaeology, and medicine have been utterly revolutionized by this way of understanding the world of living things. Patterns that never previously made sense, now make perfect sense. It makes doctors cautious of using antibiotics, because they know that they more they use them, the more micro-organisms will evolve to avoid them, and it guides them in seeking disease control tools that won't just bring into existence new resistant diseases. It helps us understand the ecological systems that sustain our lives, their ability to evolve around slowly developing environmental changes, but their fragility in the face of changes imposed too rapidly to adapt to.
By comparison, the creationist theory allows us to understand exactly what? What use to us is the idea that the world was put the way it was by an "intelligent designer?" What guidance can doctors and ecologists take from that idea? That they should throw down their stethoscopes and butterfly nets and pray? I think that we can forgive them for not expressing much interest, or at least keeping busy with their stethoscopes and butterfly nets while they are praying. Creationism may not be totally devoid of value, but it isn't nearly as useful as evolutionary theory. It'd be much easier to convince farmers to trade their tractors for sharp sticks than it would be to convince scientists to abandon evolutionary theory for creationist theory. You can, at least, still seed a field with a sharp stick, which is more than you can do with creationist theory.
10. ConclusionWhat all this means to me, is
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