Do you believe in the theory of evolution?
Do you believe in man-made climate change?
Do you believe in creation science?
Each of these claims the status of scientific respectability.
At the risk of hurting your feelings, I suggest that belief in the first is scientifically unsound. Likewise, if you believe in man-made climate change, your belief is unscientific. So too with creation science.
How can they all be wrong?
I didn’t suggest that any of them is “wrong”. What is wrong is believing in the truth of any scientific theory. A theory is never proved correct: we can never hold firm to scientific truth. We can demonstrate only that the data to hand are consistent with a given theory. Tomorrow’s datum can – and generally will – force us to modify our theory – or to ditch it. Kepler, my hero in science, loved his perfect model of a geometric planetary system, a truly beautiful, enormously intricate offering to his God. It was a Ptolemaic system in which everything orbited the earth. Kepler heard that Tycho de Brahe had a better telescope than his own, so he went off to Bohemia to check out his observations using Tycho’s ‘scope. He noted minor discrepancies. He checked and rechecked. And ditched his own observations, ditched his own theory, discarded his life’s work and started again.
I learned and embraced and soon loved Newtonian physics in high school. I still love it. But Einstein and Heisenberg damaged Newton at the edges, so, with an intellectual courage that I can only call Keplerian, I ditched Newton. As a belief.
I went to school with a remarkable classmate called Robert. It was in sixth grade that Robert wrote an essay on the nature of knowledge, the need for scepticism and the matter of knowing. Our teacher honoured the essay. He asked Robert to read it aloud. I remember still its final lines. Verbatim they ran: I suggest there is no such thing as ‘believe’; there is either proof or there is not; either you know or you do not. Robert was the Galileo of Sixth Grade.
Recently my younger brother, assuming that I claim to be both a practising Jew and a scientist, challenged me: Does God exist – yes or no?
I said I could not answer in those terms.
You’re an Agnostic then.
I said I would never claim such a lofty status.
So you’re a smart arse and an Agnostic.
I suggested I could have constant faith with inconstant belief.
That sort of faith is just wishfulness.
I told him science didn’t provide me with a reliable answer to his initial question. It couldn’t.
So, why worship when you can’t even say you believe?
I asked him to consider music: I could listen to music and experience a knowing that eluded proving, that rose above and beyond science, that transcended measurement and observation. In similar vein, moments of knowing come to me – sometimes in the depth of the poetry of prayer, at other times simply as a lone human in a vast landscape.
That’s not knowing. That’s just romantic love.
Precisely. And speaking of love – it is in some similar way I know I love my wife, and I know I love my kids (yes, all of them), and my grandchildren too… and the Collingwood Football Club…
I build my life upon some values – that kindness is better than cruelty, that justice must be pursued, that freedom and equality are human rights. I cannot prove these values to be valid – indeed, in some cases they show signs of Darwinian invalidity. The more valid my sort of moralism, the less firmly it can attach itself to scientific evidence. My moral life, with the lives of all non-machiavellians, is built upon those unshifting sands.
But all that knowing, that value system, all that is distinct from proof.
Do you believe in God?
Do you believe in fairies?
Do you believe in Santa?
Do you believe in naturopathy?
Do you believe in scientology?
We are entitled to believe but science won’t take us there. In these matters our knowing must be made of different stuff. And our knowings will often attach themselves to strong feelings of identity, feelings that are passionate in intensity. That is part of the reason that you only raise climate science at a dinner party if you are prepared to wreck the evening. After I have done that my wife rises from the table, apologises for my rudeness and takes me home. Works every time.