11 April 2014

Pulling Wings Off Fairies

On 7 January 1610 Galileo began a series of observations of Jupiter through his new telescope. He lived in a world in which people in Europe believed the earth was at the centre of a perfectly spherical universe, created by God ca 4004 BC. In this idealised view all the moving bodies of the heavens were perfect spheres moving in perfect circles around the earth. This view was synthesis of Christian theology, Platonic philosophy and Ptolemaic astronomy. What we might call the "Hellenic legacy" since all three sets of ideas were originally written in Greek.

On that night in 1610 Galileo saw four points of light in a line close to Jupiter. They were not visible to the naked eye, but relatively bright in the telescope. He continued to observe these new heavenly bodies and noted that they appeared to move against the back drop of stars similar to the way planets move. Then on 10 January one of them disappeared! And he correctly deduced that it must have disappeared behind Jupiter and that the four points of light were in orbit around Jupiter. He had discovered what we now call the Galilean moons of Jupiter.

A short time later he turned his telescope on the moon. Now the moon was thought to be a perfect sphere with a perfectly smooth surface. How they accounted for the visible patterns I'm not sure. But Galileo was able to deduce from shadows cast by prominences associated with what we now know to be craters, that the surface was from far from smooth.

The importance of these observations some 400 years ago cannot be overstated. They were cracks of imperfection appearing in the perfect world. If bodies were in orbit around Jupiter then the model of everything in orbit around the earth was refuted. If the moon was not a perfect sphere the whole universe might be imperfect. At the very least God's representatives on earth were wrong about the universe. The whole of Europe, and through it the world, was shaken by this simple act of observing. It's almost impossible for those of us who live now to understand the seismic shift that occurred. And of course Galileo was far from diplomatic in confronting Church leaders with these observations. He provoked an angry response and was not forgiven for almost four centuries in 1992 (long after the Church accepted the facts of his observation). Galileo was a man who pulled the wings off fairies to the horror of the Peter Pan's in the Vatican.


There is something about this conflict and not only because it has played out time and again. Supernatural, superstitious, and fantastic ideas were undermined time and again by repeated observation and deduction. Galileo and a few of his contemporaries were the thin end of a wedge that cracked open the perfect world and then shattered it. Momentum grew into the Enlightenment during which time everything that could be observed was observed. (Our translation of bodhi as "Enlightenment" is a conscious attempt at alignment of Buddhism with the European Enlightenment by 19th century scholars). 

Hooke's Micrographia.
Bodleian Library
The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, usually known simply as "The Royal Society" was founded in 1660. In 1665 Robert Hooke published Micrographia: or, Some physiological descrip-tions of minute bodies made by magnifying glasses. Hooke showed how how various creatures and things looked when viewed through one of the first microscopes. Worlds beyond the human scale began to open up in both directions.

Newton published Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica in 1687. We still make use of his mathematics today. But Newton's observations had a major implication that is often overlooked. Heavenly bodies had to obey the same physical laws as earth-bound bodies. Newton was the first to propose a universal physical law that had its basis in observation. In effect he unified heaven and earth.

Although we think of Darwin as epoch making, he came some 200 years after Bacon, Hooke, Newton, Leibniz, and other great natural philosophers. By the time Darwin came along the djinn was well and truly out of the bottle. But Darwin's (and the almost always forgotten but equally creditable Alfred Russell Wallace's) work was in it's own way a seismological event. What they all did, in fact all they did, was to observe the world and pay attention to the way it actually worked rather than working from pure speculation. The balance of responsibility for understanding the world shifted decisively from abstract philosophy and theology towards natural philosophy (what we now call "science").

European abstract philosophy had imagined a perfectly ordered world. Of course this appealed to Christian theologians who worked this into their accounts of God's Creation. The dream of an ordered world is important everywhere - it's evident in Indian religions as well, including Buddhism. It is the one of the central themes of all the world's mythologies. A huge effort over tens of thousands of years has gone into creating stories about the order of the world. Things happen for reasons. Unfairness will be balanced out at some point. Death, the greatest unfairness, will be compensated for by an afterlife. Out of this impetus come the idealised stories of perfect worlds created by perfect gods. Of course to some extent these stories highlight regularities in the natural world: the path of the sun, moon, and stars; the seasons; generations and so on. 

Natural philosophy changed all this. The imperfections of the religious account of the universe was shown to be "not even false", but pure fantasy. The main strength of natural philosophy was that anyone could look for themselves and see it. No intermediaries, no priests are required. I've seen the Galilean moons of Jupiter through a small telescope, though not had the patience to watch them over a period of time. While on retreat in Spain in 2005, however I did watch the Planet Venus over about four months during which time it moved in relation to the background stars and even went retrograde (changing it's direction of motion). It's all there for anyone to see. In my science classes in secondary school and university I've reproduced most of the observations of those pioneering natural philosophers. I've seen what they saw. 

Facts and facts

There were of course some who resisted that change. In fact according to a recent survey about 10% of Britons prefer Young Earth Creationism to evolution, while only 25% are confident Darwinian evolution is "definitely true" and another 25% think it's "probably true." Half of Briton's don't believe in evolution at all (Guardian). We live in a highly pluralistic society. 

Some people I know sincerely believe that when they die their "consciousness" will hang around their dead body for up to 49 days (as per the Tibetan Book of the Dead) and will be able to sense what is going on - i.e. to be aware of how people are reacting, what they are saying, and how their remains are being treated. Likewise they believe that living people are be able to "sense" the presence of the deceased and empathise with their emotional state. Then the deceased will be reborn as another being (mostly we presume human).

On the other hand my Mother believes that God created the world; that Jesus died for our sins; that God loves everyone and that there is a plan for everything that happens (and she's witnessed some pretty horrendous stuff). When she dies her soul will ascend up to heaven, and now that she's a Catholic she presumably believes in a bodily resurrection at some point as well.  

Neither belief is something that anyone can base on observation. We might have experiences around corpses that we interpret as a presence, or we might have a sense of love amidst horror, but someone with a different belief system is free to interpret these subjective experiences in different ways. And not everyone has these kinds of experiences. 

When Galileo observed points of light moving he interpreted them as "moons". Why is this different? Because even those with different belief systems could make the same observation, and unless they insisted on some irrational interpretation they would be forced to conclude that Jupiter has satellites. The moons of Jupiter are independent of the observer. They are objective facts. The spirit of a dead person as a phenomenon is apparently dependent on the belief system of the observer, and thus not an objective fact. Over the years experience has shown that if the potential observer of a super-natural phenomenon is a scientist then the effect is much less likely to be observed. This alone is telling. When the belief system of the observer determines whether or not they are able to observe the phenomenon then that is an entirely different order to the Galilean moons.

Now some will argue for what might be called a subjective fact. This would be a fact based on something that only the individual subject has observed. But we have another word for subjective experiences that cannot be confirmed by other people: hallucination. Wikipedia has a nice definition:
"A hallucination is a perception in the absence of apparent stimulus that has qualities of real perception. Hallucinations are vivid, substantial, and located in external objective space."
Most of supernatural belief appears to be based on interpretation of experiences in which the stimulus is not apparent. As Thomas Metzinger said of his out of body experiences:
For anyone who actually had [an out-of-body experience] it is almost impossible not to become an ontological dualist afterwards. In all their realism, cognitive clarity and general coherence, these phenomenal experiences almost inevitably lead the experiencing subject to conclude that conscious experience can, as a matter of fact, take place independently of the brain and body. (The Ego Tunnel p.78) 
But we note that Metzinger himself was eventually persuaded against this compelling dualistic explanation. Careful observation of the phenomena he experienced and comparing notes with other neuro-scientists showed that the experience was not in fact consistent with a truly disembodied consciousness. And the insights into the nature of our sense of self that follow from his exploration are more fascinating, to my mind, than any supernatural phenomenon.

It's important to distinguish looking for a naturalistic, objective explanation of an experience and the dismissal of it as a fantasy. Such experiences can be utterly compelling and deeply meaningful for those who have them. It's not stupid to believe in God or karma or whatever. There are many factors in our make up that make it such beliefs plausible. Justin Barrett argues, in his book Why Would Anyone Believe in God?, that we believe because it is entirely natural to believe. Note that he does not argue that it is correct or sensible, only natural. But it is rational given the kinds of judgements our minds make. So just attacking belief or mocking it are unhelpful.

If we publicly attack someone's belief system, if we start pulling wings of fairies, then we're being rude at best. Belief is not a simple matter. It's often the result of deep conviction. My understanding is that belief is very much tied into our system of values. When we attack someone's beliefs, we attack their values, or at least that is how they experience the attack. Aggression, I know from personal experience, diminishes the likelihood of communication. We may even choose to be rude to people on purpose to make them averse to us. Or may think that shock tactics will jolt someone out of their complacency. But on the whole I find this does not work. Shock most people and they respond with sharp aversion. Aggression is good for defending boundaries, but not for bridging them. On the other hand walking around any city in the world shows how people respond to being surrounded by strangers. We cannot be open to every possible encounter and it is often necessary to erect barriers to preserve one's sanity.

Shifts in World View 

Now this situation is complicated, especially in the USA, though keeping in mind that even in the home of Charles Darwin only about half the population accept Evolution on the evidence they're aware of. Fundamentalist Christians are vocally and vehemently protesting that their version of the what the world is like, based on a literal reading of an English translation of the Bible, ought to be at least on the same level as a description of the world that is independent of belief. They want everyone to learn about Creationism on the same level as Evolution.

If someone has started an argument, especially one that would so drastically affect how we educate children, then it's only fair that everyone gets to have a say and that everyone argues to the best of their ability. Once it becomes a high stakes debate, pointing out the weaknesses and flaws in the argument of the opposition is part of the process. If religious people are quietly and harmlessly getting on with their lives, then we ought to leave them to it. If they want to control public life, then a debate is necessary.

On the whole the moments that have changed my worldview, changed my life, have been encountering new information that contradicted my beliefs in a relatively neutral setting, often reading a book in or from a library, experiencing the resultant cognitive dissonance, and deciding to learn more about the subject on my own. It takes time and leisure to weight things up and consider the implications.

A shift in worldview is non-trivial. I can't make someone reconsider their views just by bombarding them with facts. Why are their so many climate change deniers? Partly because the facts have been presented in a confused and confusing way. The media, thriving on conflict, has given far too much air time to a small group of contrarians. The climate change message also partly fails because climate change activists have just bombarded people with a mass of facts disconnected from any attempt to connect with people on an emotional level. They try to drill facts into us, try to scare us. Climate change are expressing their own values and all too often appear to express contempt for any other values. And that is never effective.

If I stand on a street corner shouting out what I believe to be facts that have terrible implications (my views on politicians for example), then I will never convince anyone of anything, particularly not here in the UK! One does see street preachers doing this. It converts no one. But the going through the ordeal, being willing to experience the humiliation of being ignored at best or being abused by the public, is a signal to others that one's faith has high value. Research has shown that such sacrifices strengthen the faith of the faithful (see Martyrs Maketh the Religion). One could say exactly the same for Richard Dawkins' approach to arguing with religious people. It's an exercise is appealing to militant atheists, not a genuine attempt at dialogue or conversion. And of course militant atheists lap it up. Buddhist texts are often like this also - full of appeals to the faith of the faithful. I've discussed this in an essay called Martyrs Maketh the Religion (2010).


There is a clear and important distinction between knowledge and belief. More and more of us are placing our reliance on knowledge as opposed to belief largely because one is a demonstrably better guide to life than the other. But the issue is complicated. What counts as valid knowledge is and always has been disputed. Knowledge is a negotiated communal domain.

What Galileo and his successors did was establish ways of validating knowledge that went beyond the usual means of discussion about what seemed likely with the best arguer becoming the authority. They collectively established the possibility of independent, objective facts and the value of them. Philosophers still tend to see everything from an individualist point of view - knowledge in this view is inevitably subjective. But in fact we, humans, are communities. And for this reason we can establish objective truths: Jupiter has four large moons (and many smaller ones) and they are in elliptical orbits around Jupiter. There is no rational or reasonable objection to this. It's not my opinion or Galileo's, it is the observation of everyone who has taken the time to look. And it does not depend on a belief in Newtonian mechanics (the discovery predates Newton!).

It is 400 years since Galileo discovered that philosophers and priests had simply made up their accounts of the world and were wrong about it. In that 400 years more and more of the unseen world has become seeable. And in every case so far where a proposition can be tested, the abstract philosophers and priests have been shown to be wrong.

However, being in possession of knowledge is not sufficient. How we communicate knowledge is at least, if not more, important. Truth presented badly fails to be accepted (evolution and climate change being two important examples). Pulling wings off fairies is counter productive. Falsehood presented well may well become the accepted "wisdom". I've repeatedly argued that we judge the salience of facts by how we feel about them. Thus people may be understandably reluctant to believe the awful truth. We must try to find a way to connect with people before trying to change their minds. Sometimes, as a last resort, confrontation may be necessary. But people aren't persuaded by ridicule. On the contrary being willing to accept loss rather than inflicting it (i.e. martyrdom), is more likely to persuade people.

On the other hand we can also understand some of the frustration of natural philosophers. Having spent the last 400 years showing that priests are wrong about every testable proposition, we might wonder why anyone still listens to priests at all. Despite the fact that the unseen domain has consistently shrunk, it remains and while it remains priests (and those who pretend to the knowledge traditionally associated with priests) can claim to be experts on it.

And of course there are enduring imaginative stories about what might exist in an unseen domain so that it seems to be a larger domain than it actually is. If we believe in an afterlife for example, the then the unseen domain seems infinitely larger than the seen. Some people remain far from convinced that an accurate view of the universe is even desirable. Magical thinking, faith in God and all kinds of supernatural views still seem more attractive to many people. It has been four centuries since Galileo's observations, but this is a legacy stretching back at least 65,000 years so it might take a while yet before we sort it out. 


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