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Incredible stories, inexplicable coincidences

Newsday • Geoffrey Frankson • 21 January 2006 • 1,183 words

And what is more, scientific research on social, political and economic development clearly indicates that the lower the religious content in education, jurisprudence and governance, the faster the progress towards a just and equitable society.

Put one end of an iron rod in a fire and the other end will soon become too hot to handle. Do the same with a wooden rod and even as one end burns the other remains cool enough to hold. How many people, in the 21st century, can provide an explanation for this difference between iron and wood? (That the iron conducts heat better than wood is an observation, not an explanation.) Should I turn to priests, pundits and imams for an explanation, I will very likely hear that it is written in some holy book that the rod of correction was made of wood and comes from God, while iron is forged in the fires of hell; or I might be told that God gave us the trees to make wood, but man in his wickedness, dug holes in the Earth and extracted the devil?s ore in order to make iron.

And so their explanation, in the 21st century, is that wood is “good” and will not harm us, even as it burns, while iron is “evil” and will bring pain and suffering (hence the reason that one sub-group of the Mennonites religious sect will only use ploughs made of wood). But “lean not on your own understanding,” I will be told, “just believe in the teachings of the Lord and you will know the difference. No further explanation is necessary.” Should I turn to scientists in any part of the world, I will be given a single explanation that delves into the nature of the elements of which all matter is composed. But more to the point is the means by which these scientists would have come to an understanding of the differences between wood and iron — an understanding which, they will happily point out, is not yet complete and may never be.

Scientists would have measured the speed with which heat travels along the material they would have formulated a theory about the observed differences in speed, and conducted experiments to see if the theory was likely to be correct. And so, through a process of hypothesis, experimentation, observation and inference they would have accumulated a body of evidence on which to base their understanding. This is the ?scientific method,? and what it yields is not a set of beliefs, but a degree of understanding based on evidence. Quite often the evidence is contradictory, and scientists must go in the direction in which the majority of the evidence points. As more evidence accumulates, however, that direction can change, sometimes quite drastically. To say, as so many do, that scientists ?believe? in evolution is nonsense. The evidence gathered over the last 200 years suggests that the tremendous variety of life forms on this planet is the result of a process of natural selection as outlined in the theory of evolution put forward by Alfred Wallace and Charles Darwin 150 years ago.

It is a theory that has undergone many alterations, and which continues to be modified as the evidence comes in. Scientists today accept the theory of evolution as fact because there is no body of evidence that contradicts it. On the contrary, it is supported by everything we have learned in physics, geology, biochemistry, physiology, embryology and all the other fields of inquiry.  There are many observed phenomena that so far defy explanation, but they do not add up to a refutation of the theory, they simply indicate a need for more research. Those who would offer an alternative explanation for the diversity of life must bring scientific evidence to support their hypothesis.  Unfortunately, many of these doubters begin with a set of beliefs, not a hypothesis, and to begin a search for understanding with a belief is the very opposite of the scientific method. It does not matter how convinced you are that what you have read or been taught is “true.” Unless you can provide a set of tests that anyone, believer or non-believer, can apply to the theory over and over and get the same results, then you have not provided any scientific evidence for the truth of what you believe.

Scientists have nothing to prove, indeed, science is generally concerned with disproving theories. They know that they cannot explain everything, but they are prepared to wait for the evidence (we have only had 200 years of genuine scientific inquiry, for God’s sake!). This uncertainty leaves many people feeling insecure, or in awe at the enormity of the challenge that faces us in our quest for understanding. They look at the unimaginable size of the universe, the incredible diversity of life, the utter mystery of human consciousness, the “good” feelings that come with love and virtue, and the “evil” that is engendered by hate and vice, and, overwhelmed by it all, they conclude without any actual evidence that there must be supernatural forces at work; that there must be an intelligent designer who created the world we live in. Armed with this conviction, they draw up lists of incredible stories and inexplicable coincidences as proof that they are right. This is belief, not science. And while it is impossible that what you say is true, it cannot be upheld by laws or taught in school simply because you strongly believe it to be true.

To teach is to show the path to understanding, and there is only one path that is not predicted on belief: namely, the scientific method. A true teacher does not try to convince his students that this is “true” and that is “false”; he seeks, rather, to show them how to look for evidence; how to assess the evidence, and how to use the evidence to gain understanding. To do otherwise is to indoctrinate, not teach, and indoctrination leads not to understanding, but to prejudice, intolerance, closed-mindedness, and a reduced capacity to think.

The world today is beset with the consequences of indoctrination as never before, with “true believers” on each side convinced that they have a better understanding of what is “Go(o)d” and what is “(d)evil” than their adversaries. We are going to have to think our way out of this mess, and intelligently design a modus vivendi based on the two (the only two) fundamental ethical axioms; namely, “treat others as you would wish to be treated,” and “act in a way that will benefit the greatest number.”

And so it is that we must “seek first to understand,” a direct contradiction to the biblical injunction quoted above. And what is more, scientific research on social, political and economic development clearly indicates that the lower the religious content in education, jurisprudence and governance, the faster the progress towards a just and equitable society. A lot of people will be very uncomfortable with these observations, but that is precisely why science must point the way forward: it is not concerned with comfortable propositions, but with testable ones. It requires that we take full responsibility for our decisions, and that means that we had better be very careful about the evidence on which we base those decisions.

Copyright © • Geoffrey Frankson • Trinidad and Tobago Humanist Association • www.humanist.org.tt/humanist/forum/franksonPage Top