Not every question is asked in order to get an answer. In the scene I described in my last article, the Roman ruler asks this question not in order to better understand the Truth, but rather to mock the very idea of Truth. Think of it along the lines of your significant other asking, “What were you thinking?” You are not supposed to answer that question. Trust me. Please trust me. It is a common thread in modern philosophy to question the very idea of Truth.
To a limited extent I understand this phenomenon. As science continues to advance, we can use it to better understand more and more of the issues that face mankind. In its honest application, the questioning of Truth is in part a response to those advances in science. I say honest application because that cannot always be assumed. The very idea of “settled science” is an anathema to the definition of science. True science is process of setting up hypotheses’ and then testing them over and over. As such, there can be no hard scientific truths, but rather those things that we believe to be true because, to the best of our knowledge, they are true. But they remain true only until they are proven not to be so by a different test.
In addition to the dishonest application of science there is, of course, the possibility of the dishonest application of philosophy. As Plato lamented, the Sophists had a great understanding of language which they used to entertain and impress their audiences. Plato viewed their craft as more akin to trickery and verbal gymnastics rather than as a way to get to the Truth. A more charitable explanation might be that the Sophists themselves often considered their craft to be entertainment, and, while there is nothing wrong with entertaining and being entertained, neither should we consider those to be the best tools for informed decision making.
The scientific method is the right one to use in many cases because it requires intellectual rigor. Hypothesize, test, conclude, and then repeat as more information becomes available. This becomes the habit by which smart people approach questions. It is one of the best tools that we have. But what if it is the wrong tool for the question being asked? Are there things that can be known in the absence of science?
Let us start with a simple example. My mother loves me. While she may be the only one who does so, that statement is both true and scientifically unprovable. If it is true, then it is also true that not every Truth can be verified by applying the scientific method. Oh, I get the biological behavior parallels between human mom love and a wild bird feeding a chick, but there is a difference with humans that is also both knowable and scientifically unprovable (for some absolutely brilliant discussion on this subject please refer to my earlier articles).
Why does that matter?
It matters because the tools we use to explore any problem matter. I do my own vehicle maintenance because I live remotely and, half of the time, I know more about mechanics than the poor kid that has been assigned to wrench on my truck even as my knowledge is pretty limited. Modern vehicles have a port that allows you to connect an external code reader tool to the vehicles electronic control module (ECM) and read what that minicomputer is telling you about the vehicle. No matter what the old school mechanical romantics may say, this control system is far superior to the art of reading spark plugs for carburetor and timing settings, allows for your average modern sedan to last more than twice as long as they used to, get better fuel economy, and out accelerate some of the muscle cars of old. The ECM contains data about all of the vehicle’s sensors and their interactions so if, for instance, the mass air pressure sensor is showing an error, you know to replace that sensor in order to clear your pesky check engine light. Low transmission pressure code means either something wrong with the pump or solenoid. The science that created this system is very advanced. But even that wonderful tool has limitations. The code reader will not tell you if your serpentine belt or a heater hose is about to fail. The tool you need to prevent those failures is your power of observation. If the belt has cracks, or some unusual wear, or discoloration, you need to replace it. Unfortunately, the ability to detect serpentine belt failure is a skill that generally requires experience in serpentine belt failure. Experience being the comb that God gives you after you lose all your hair.
I mentioned earlier my love of the Hebrew philosophy and what the stories that they told have to say to us today about our world today. There is an Old Testament tale about a king who has great wisdom given to him by God. In this story there is a dispute between two women about which is the real mother of a child. The king decides to settle the argument by ordering the baby to be split, and for each claimant mother to be given half. The true baby’s mother immediately concedes in order to save the child, and the king has the baby delivered to her. The king, Solomon, understands the immutable nature of motherhood and uses that wisdom to make the right decision where, at the time, no genetic test existed. While science has advanced in such a way to make such a thing now knowable, that does not change the nature of a mother’s relationship to her child. That relationship is both scientifically unprovable and true.
My point is not that we should distrust science. My point is that we need to use the correct tool for the job. There is a critical difference between knowledge and wisdom. Science may tell us how to spit the atom, but it is a pretty useless tool to determine if a bomb, built with the knowledge of the physics of the atom, should be used. Science makes it possible to directly alter the DNA in an embryo, but I do not believe that it is the right tool to determine if we should do so. We should “follow the science” for as long as it takes to get the information necessary to make an informed decision. But “the science” will not make that decision for us. And we need to recognize that science alone will not be the only tool that we need, and that the failure to keep sharp the other tools that we will need is a recipe for bad decision making.
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