Education, Human Nature, Ideas, Learning, Obligations to Society, Science, Scientist, Thinking, Truth

Humanity’s Best Road to Truth

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Paul offers his opinion that humans best discern truths through group, communal efforts such as the sciences are founded upon.

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THE CRITICS GUSH! “There is no way Claude Thurston could have know he would blow his head off last Wednesday when he set out to clean his shotgun.  No matter what Harriet Bayou has been saying down at the Hartsel Cafe and Salon over coffee every morning since the accident, there is no way he could have known.  Claude was exemplary in his practice of firearms safety. Granted, Claude did not always practice safety in everything.  But to point out now how he and Cyndi had to get hastily married their senior year in high school after Cyndi got knocked up with little Eliot is to speak ill of the dead.  Claude simply could not have foreseen that his precocious four year old could insightfully load a shotgun.  And the unsuspecting blog surfer who lands himself on Paul Sunstone’s newest post will be just as unlikely as Claude ever was to see the grim severity of the accident that is about to befall him. May the Good Lord preserve the surfers who fail to read my column in time.”  — Gus “Gunning Gus” Johnson, The Blog Critic’s Column, “Leper’s Gulch Gazette”, Leper’s Gulch, Colorado, USA.

(About a 5 minute read)

The sciences loom large and foremost in the minds of many people as pure materialism. Some of us praise the sciences for their materialism, others of us condemn them for the same, but to so many of us, the sciences are first and foremost all about materialism.

I myself believe there is a far more useful and practical way to loom the sciences large and before us.  That is to see them as a community effort.  Specifically, it is to see the significance of the fact that the sciences are based upon sorting out the truth via group effort.

Here’s a curious experiment you might amuse yourself with in some idle hour.  Imagine a solitary animal, such as a bear. Now try imagining how self-contained the bear’s mind must be.  Most bears leave their mothers at about two years of age.  Once they have left her, they spend the rest of their lives without any other bear to consult on any matter, subject, or thing.

Got the picture?  Now comes the fun. Try to figure out how the bear’s thoughts and awareness of the world must — must — differ from a human’s, granted that humans are communal animals and so very often rely on each other for truths about their world.

Fun, eh?  I challenged people to perform precisely the same thought experiment at the most recent party I’ve been invited to — my wedding back in ’98.  Unfortunately, all my guest’s forty-odd babysitters chose exactly the same moment to call, and they all had the same news, “Rush home!  There’s been an emergency!”

In my naivete, I only thought it strange once I noticed even the singles and childless couples were getting emergency phone calls from their babysitters.  But it got much worse than that.

In ’98 cells were rare.  Only Jim had one, and he was passing his around to all the other guests.  My best man!  My own best man was expediting the sudden flight of everyone, and for no better reason than to avoid a thoroughly enjoyable thought experiment!

It was almost as embarrassing as that party in middle school at which Linda, my girlfriend of just two weeks, picked the moment to publicly break up with me.  That wasn’t what crushed me though. It was when six other girls who I wasn’t even dating declared they too were breaking up with me in solidarity with her.  I was left all alone with only the home chemistry lab I’d brought to the party for everyone’s fun — with only it to comfort me.

But it wasn’t a total loss.  That was the night I discovered my tears were .047% saline.

I’ve never gone to a party without a lab since.  Come to think of it, I’ve almost never gone to a party since.  Period.  Full stop.

But enough shallow conversation! It is my contention that the success of the sciences ought to loom large and before us in stunning relief the profound truth of human nature: We discern truths best through communal, group efforts.  Competitive efforts, to be sure, but definitely group efforts.

Hello?  Ok, dear Readers, which one of you good folks just sent that email with the cryptic words, “Better get out your chemistry lab”?

Ahem! Onward!  Unlike bears, we humans are social animals in every which way but our mysterious habit of always partying alone. Not only do we rely upon each other for trivial things — such emotional support in times of crisis, friendship, and love — but our very best understandings of the world we live in crucially depends on our ability to be reality checks to each other.

Without any fellow and trustworthy humans around for frequent reality checks, a man or woman is all but absolutely guaranteed to drift into fantasies and delusions. It is all but only through each other that our noble and esteemed species of poo-flinging apes can best achieve some measure of more or less sure-footed insight into reality.

From all of the above, we may now be permitted to draw three hesitant and tentative conclusions

I. Being careless of whether or not one is speaking the truth (as one honestly sees it) can in some circumstances amount to one of the most anti-social acts imaginable short of a violent one.

II. While criticizing a person is much more common than is truly warranted or genuinely necessary, honestly criticizing a person’s views or opinions can be a blessing to them, and might even at times amount to a duty for us to perform.  Sadly, we are often more honest criticizing persons than we are criticizing their ideas.

III.  On a great fool would attend a party without a chemistry lab.

It seems to me all of the above is clearly shown by the phenomenal success of the sciences.

13 thoughts on “Humanity’s Best Road to Truth”

      1. So I read it again and again! It is true as human beings we seek validation, consolation from everybody around us. Can we survive on our own? Develop ideas individually? We do in bits and pieces but then again we have to abide by the norms that was set by a group, a collective perception. Will it lead to chaos if we choose to think individually, derive individually? But don’t we need chaos at times as well?

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    1. I’ve read that humans are such a thorough-going social species true hermits are the rarest of all human living arrangements. By far, most alleged hermits have much more social contact than people suppose. I know a lot more about the alleged ones than I do the true ones.

      Think of a small group of very like-minded people, Sarah, that is an information bubble to itself. Such groups tend to form cult-like attachments to delusional ideas. Anything from apocalyptic thoughts of a coming war with UFOs to bizarre notions about the roles and relationships of men and women — or if they are all men, absolutely bizarre ideas about women. Groups of “hermits” can be all over the board in their convictions. No critical feedback, and the human imagination is almost the only limit there is.

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      1. Ouch, Kate! To my ears that sounds a whole lot like you had some..um..let’s just call them “uninspiring” science teachers. In my opinion, there’s as much beauty in the sciences as there is in literature, painting, dance, etc.

        I’m no more of a scientist than you are, but at university, I studied the philosophy of the sciences quite a bit. A philosopher is someone who looks at the sciences looking at nature to study how the sciences see what they see. Philosophy is a powerful way to see the beauty of the sciences. It makes them exciting, stimulating, alive.

        I’m on the very verge here of advising you to sue your science teachers for malpractice. It’s no better than if you had an English teacher who turned you off to poetry or novels by teaching you English in ways that left you blind to the beauty of our words and meanings.

        You’re not alone, though. I have so known so many people who were taught poorly when it came to the sciences. I’m pretty lucky. Not only did I get lucky enough to have some good teachers — including the one I had a crush on — but my mom bought me some wonderful books when I was growing up. I used to pour over them by the hours almost every evening. Read and re-read them growing up — in between Dickens, Hemingway, Yeats, and so forth.

        There’s a whole new continent waiting for you to explore some day! At least, if you ever get curious about it. That’s up to you.

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