Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Waxing philosophical

For Christmas, Luann bought me a few books that explore philosophical issues, and that got me to over-thinking a few things.

Religion and philosophy often intersect, and I had an insight about the statement "I believe in God." I realized that this is actually a dual statement. First, it is a statement about the speaker's beliefs, and as such is pretty much irrefutably true - if they say "I believe in God," then unless you have reason to believe they are lying, you can pretty much assume that yes, they do in fact believe in God.

But it is also necessarily a definitional statement. To play a bit of linguistic algebra, "I believe in God" is equal in meaning to the statement "I believe in the God that I believe in." (Obviously, since "I believe in the God that I don't believe in" is nonsensical.) In other words, this second meaning implies that there exists a particular meaning to the (inherently ambiguous) word "God". This second meaning is, of course, neither true nor false - it is a statement of definition. And it has to be - after all, if everyone agreed on what "God" means, then we wouldn't have so many religions nor so many conflicts based on religion.

I don't know if there's a meaningful point to this, it's just an insight that I had. So I will move on to a second, unrelated overthinking insight.

Science is not truth, we should not confuse the two. Science is a model of truth. The better that this model can mimic reality or predict it, the better the science is, but it is not itself "truth." Newton's theories of motion do a great job of modeling the world around us and even let us get 747s to fly, but alas, they have already been shown to be poor models at the edges. Evolution is a great model - it has its flaws, but it works better than any other model; it will likely be replaced by a better model at some point. But none of these theories are "true," they are merely "good models."

I thought about this the other day, when we brought our new puppy to obedience class. The instructor told us all sorts of things about why we should do this or that, expressing it in terms of how the dog thinks, how the pack works. A lot of this is about establishing who is dominant. And it occurred to me that here is a great example of confusing science with truth. It is very easy to think "here is what the dog is thinking" and act based on that. While this works very effectively for training the dog, it is ridiculous to assume that this is in fact what's going on inside the dog's head. Rather, the "correct" way to think about this is that it is a predictive model for whatever the dog is thinking. Perhaps they are thinking in terms of dominance/pack, but especially given that they don't have the level of abstract thinking that these words require, it is almost certainly some doggie equivalent of these notions, and we really have no idea whether it really is dominance/pack or something else that just exhibits similar behavioral tendencies.

Am I splitting hairs and being a bit retentive on this point of science and truth not being the same? Absolutely, but I think it is a useful point to make. When one thinks of science as a model, then debate leads to refinement and improvement of the model, which is non-controversial. When one thinks of science as truth, then debate often leads to a somewhat more emotional and visceral reaction. After all, "truth" is binary - something is or is not true. But models are not. They are either bad, good, or better.

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