Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Gonzalez and the need for critical thinking

What is truth? Is truth the same as received opinions? Is there no such thing as truth? Or is there a definite version of events that is more representative of reality than any other?

I would argue for the latter, and I guess most of the people who read this and comment here would agree - even if they have a different opinion as to what that truth is. If this is the case, they believe that it is meaningful to seek to persuade me of the rightness of their idea of what truth is, just as when I write this, I am seeking to an extent to persuade readers of the rightness of my ideas.

This ties in with the headline, by the way - "Data isn't information; information isn't knowledge; knowledge isn't wisdom; wisdom isn't truth." In that, I am seeking to draw attention to the fact that truth is ultimately something "external" - something "beyond" the observer - even the most reliable of observers can go no further than his or her observations allow. You can infer from the headline that this blog expresses a view which is at its core anti-empiricist!

Of course, people will have different perceptions of how things are - the same event observed by different observers will result in their drawing different conclusions. This is a point I have already made regarding science - that the difference between proponents of ID and proponents of naturalism isn't fundamentally one of science (both can do the same experiments, and make the same observations) but one of presuppositions/worldviews/metanarratives. If you exclude the idea of external agency, then you are bound to interpret your observations in this light. Hence Dawkins' famous comment to the effect that if he saw a statue of the virgin Mary move, he would be more likely to believe in a vastly improbable quantum phenomenon than in a miracle of divine origin. And vice versa. Scientific experiments are almost certainly not going to have an impact on people's presuppositions - this is a part that scientific experiments simply don't reach.

However, people on both sides of the ID/naturalism debate accept in principle that there is the possibility of a definitive answer. Both Dawkins and (say) Dembski would be prepared to say that something happened to the statue (contrast "There is no spoon" - The Matrix) - a measurable change has occurred, and further that this requires some sort of explanation - that events are contingent.

For most people, "truth" is something that they apprehend from all sorts of sources, and few these days are prepared to engage sufficient critical faculties to come to a sensible conclusion as to what real truth is. For the few who are prepared to engage critical thinking skills, it is easy to underestimate the power and perceived authority of these sources of information - which include web references and search engines. "You can't possibly believe the nonsense being put out by such-and-such a group," we often think to ourselves. Oh yes they can! Somebody, somewhere, must be making it worthwhile to spammers putting out those silly emails promising to pay a million pounds into your bank account if you will just send the details.

I didn't post about Gonzalez below because I thought I was adding to the debate in any way. Neither was it because I thought that Discovery Institute is somehow authoritative in a way that (say) Panda's Thumb isn't. The reason for the post was to make more visible an alternative perspective - so that hopefully people searching the internet for information will not only look up the anti-ID writings of bloggers and then assume that this is reliable.

"Oh, that wouldn't happen!" Don't you believe it. Urban myths gain currency rapidly. Was the cabin boy in Captain Pugwash called Roger? No. Are the park keepers at the Grand Canyon really being told not to talk about the age of the Grand Canyon? No. Does the fact that this is so stop the stories going round and round, as somebody finds a reference to the incorrect facts on the internet and repeats it? No.

This isn't confined to the internet. "Inherit the Wind" was written as an anti-McCarthyite film, but the story of the film was the Scopes trial. The film is factually inaccurate - but people still assume that when they see it, they are seeing a historically reliable presentation. And the same could be said on a non-ID related theme of "JFK", the Oliver Stone film. Or the supposed historical references in "The Da Vinci Code". Or the Gnostic Gospels. Or Brecht's "Life of Galileo". Or Shakespeare's Histories.

By posting below - and even by posting this - I am not assuming that people will take what I have written as being reliable or true. I don't expect anybody to take anything they read as reliable or true. What I want to do is make sure that when people read things, they engage critical thinking skills, and don't just accept things because they fit with their presuppositions.