The Truth is Out There … isn’t it?

April 17, 2014

Its disconcerting reading/watching the news from Ukraine. Not just because of the fear of decades of war to come, but the temptation to slide into relativism. Statements and stories from various quarters vary from the vaguely inconsistent to the baldly contradictory. Its tempting to think “well, they are all lying”, or “hmm.. it all depends on your point of view”. You slide down that slope and pretty soon there is no truth. We can’t let that happen. The truth is out there somewhere. Its just hard to extract from the filtered messages. As scientists, our philosophical stance is that we must be personally sceptical; you should not trust authority blindly. That’s all very well but I ain’t going to Kharkiv to make my own observations. I have to trust somebody don’t I? But who? In descending order of reliability, I guess its (1) The Guardian and the BBC (2) Our own governments (3) The Ukrainian government (4) The Russian government (5) My mate Kevin who is usually down the Dog and Ferret on a Friday, and (6) The Daily Mail.

Mind you, some days science is just as hard. I mean research, the process of uncovering new truths. The truth is out there, but its hard work to find. There are no tablets of stone. You’ve been working on something for months, but every so often you wake up in a sweat thinking oh crap it could all be wrong. Suppose X is going on instead of Y? (Radio loops versus inflationary polarisation anyone?) The philosophy of science doesn’t help. Most scientists claim to be Popperians. You can never prove, you can only falsify. All models are provisional. But its such a small step from there to “all truth is provisional”. Somehow we have to cling on to the belief that there IS a definite truth; its just that we can never have it.

A further problem is the same one we get in trying to understand Ukraine: the human filter. We can’t make all our own measurements. We have to read other people’s papers, go to conferences, and so forth. But we are all human; chasing our careers; making our pitch; following fashions; squabbling with rivals. This doesn’t mean we are not sceptical and rational; we are. But the messages are filtered through biology.

Our biology filtering a truth that is out there is essentially the message of much of Eastern mysticism and Buddhism. I have long been fascinated by where mysticism chimes with science, and where it jars. Definitely some of each. I am sitting through a MOOC on Buddhism and Modern Psychology which is quite fun. (Partly of course in mentally preparing myself for my upcoming AstroTech MOOC. Scarily soon. Gulp.) Anyway…  Zen holds that at least in principle once the biases and illusions have been stripped, you can actually personally and directly perceive the truth. Satori. Unexcelled Complete Awakening.

Boy. I’d just love a kind of mini-Satori on the structure of quasars.

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Do The Right Thing

December 6, 2013

Like millions of others, I have been welling up listening to people on radio and TV recount their memories of Nelson Mandela. I’ve never even been to South Africa, but during my youth and early manhood, the struggle against apartheid was the great cause for anybody with a heart and a political head, the rotten thing in the world that needed fixing. A short but vivid memory from a few years before Mandela was released is of watching TV and seeing Soweto youths burst across a field, with sticks. I can remember being exhilarated, and thinking yes, they are bursting from their chains – it will all change now. Then moments later I felt guilty. Oh, surely, violence is bad? What we need is peace, love, and understanding? Well mostly yes, I do believe that peace and love is best. But sometimes … sometimes …

Everybody on the Beeb is stressing that Mandela was a great man because he resisted revenge : he emerged from decades of injustice with a message of co-operation and peace. He did the right thing. He did the right thing again five years later when he stepped down, visible proof of the democratic transfer of power. Sometimes we hear that during his time in prison he changed, and realised that he had to reach out to his gaolers.

Just occasionally it is mentioned that he did indeed plan acts of sabotage. In the beginning, in the early 1950s, he believed in non-violent direct action. But he saw it didn’t work, and 65 of his brothers were massacred by police. He decided he had to take up arms, and began forming a guerilla army. I am still waiting to hear somebody on the BBC say this : that too was the right thing.

I love the Beeb, but it is really a branch of the state. The message we are taught is that violence is bad. But the truth is that it is only bad if you ordinary people try to use it. The state needs a monopoly on violence, to maintain civil order. Mostly I believe this is correct : brutal but necessary. But sometimes … sometimes… I have never had to fight. I like to think that in the First World War I would have been a conscientious objector, and in the Second World War I would have signed up. You shouldn’t fight for power, but you should fight evil. But who knows.

So … taking up arms in the late 1950s was the right thing. Rejecting revenge in the 1990s was also the right thing. Having the strength of character to do both, to have the judgement to know what is right for the time – now that is wonderful. Lets not airbrush the violent past. Its part of why the reconciliation was so amazing.