There are those who believe weather patterns are controlled by the vapor trails dragged behind passenger jets. There are those who believe there are actually four hidden days contained within each day of the week. There are those who believe this is the best and only universe. There are those who believe there are as many universes as there are stars in the sky, if not more.
A Staggering Multitude
Yes, the multitude of belief systems members of our species subscribe to is staggering. How is it we’ve managed to cram all these viewpoints onto the same tiny planet — into the 200,000-year splinter of time humans we’ve lived and breathed in the biosphere? How is it the same reality admits so many mutually-exclusive interpretations?
I think the knee-jerk response to these questions, especially for the “philosophically” and “scientifically” inclined, tends to be that the panoply of supposed “truths” is due to the fact that humans often aren’t the most careful thinkers. In spite of our extremely complex brains, we take mental shortcuts and tolerate logical inconsistencies. If we were a little more careful — if we listened to the scientists more, perhaps — there’d be just one truth to deal with. There is only one reality after all.
But though it may be that lots of us aren’t the most critical and punctilious thinkers, this is by no means universal. From the ideology of Time Cube to Calvinism to Pure Land Buddhism, there are almost always adherents who’ve thought very hard indeed.
Willard Quine Lends A Hand
If there are giants in the Philosophy of Science discipline, Willard Quine is one of them. There is a quote from his seminal work, Two Dogmas of Empiricism, that, after some unpacking, may shed some light on the matter at hand.
“Any statement can be held true come what may,” he writes in section 6, “if we make drastic enough adjustments elsewhere in the system.”
In other words, it’s possible to justify any worldview in a manner that accords both with sensory experience and with logic. If you really wanted, you could chalk up everything — the excelerating expansion of the universe, institutional racism, plate techtonics, you name it — to the choreography of self-transforming machine elves. Why is it only Terence McKenna and his ilk can see them? Well, they’re the only one’s who’ve communed with the molecules that reveal them, of course. They’re there alright! As long as you’re willing to hit the DMT pipe and look hard, you’ll see them.
Neutrinos Fast And Slow
Now, that’s kind of a wild example, but how about a more mainstream one from the la-la land of microphysics?
While I was at Indiana University Bloomington working towards my M.A., news of possible faster-than-light neutrino velocities rocked the international physics community. As you can imagine, folks were going bananas thinking a hole had been found in Einstein’s relativity paradigm. (I ended up writing a wordy term paper on the subject, which you can read here if you’ve not yet met your daily pain and suffering quota. It’s nothing revolutionary, just a fairly exhaustive dissection of the ensuing debate.)
Trouble is, the detectors and beam-generators involved have a lot of moving parts in the sense that their design and calibration assumes the veracity of a great many ancillary theories. Any one of these parts could be to blame. Heck, maybe the scientists on the detector end had a McKenna book club whose proceedings got out of hand, inducing a mass hallucination.
Eventually, as you may know, relativity-supporting data from another detector won the day — not because of evidence so much as the larger physics community’s faith in Einstein. It bears repeating that there was evidence both ways.
More Than Facts
The moral, I guess, is that we’re always dealing with more than brute facts — more than raw data. We’re always interpreting based on a larger conceptual framework. Ultimately, nothing can be proved one way or another beyond a shadow of a doubt, not even the trustworthiness of our senses.
What should we do with this lesson? I’m really not prepared to make any normative declarations on how others should respond. What I will say, though, is that the realization of the viability of potentially infinite world views has made me a much humbler person with respect to my own cache of “knowledge.” I’m also much less sure about my own preconceptions and more tolerant of others’.
Most important of all, I’m much more willing to make “drastic adjustments elsewhere in [my] system.”
- Underdetermination Of Scientific Theory (Stanford Encyclopedia Of Philosophy)
- Thoughts On Faith And Moving Mountains At LAX (Farther Still)
(Today’s photo of New Mexico’s Very Large Array is courtesy of Natalie Rae Good’s Tumblr.)