I am, by the necessity of my training and to a lesser extent as a consequence of my disposition, something of a lightweight mathematician. I’m not going to forge ahead in new fields or solve the old riddles, I may not even pass my Calculus class in truth, but I understand the philosophy behind math. I understand and can do proofs, at least the most rudimentary ones, based on ideas with which I am familiar. One thing I have learned is that nothing can really be considered true.
Mathematicians give themselves a certain pride of place in saying that they’re the only people who really prove things. They’re right to an extent, mathematics is the only discipline in which one takes universally accepted axioms and applies them to inescapable conclusions. But even mathematicians rely on a number of ‘just-so’ statements (premises or assumptions — those very axioms which are the basis of every proof) and the things they prove are not even about the real world, but rather about an imaginary world that at best superficially resembles the objective universe we can’t even be fully sure exists. So even mathematics doesn’t have any truth.
How much more so is this the case for the debased cousin of mathematics, science? At least one of science’s key propositions (called the Principle of Parsimony or Ockham’s Razor) is actually absurd, no matter how useful it and everything that descends from it happens to be in practice. There’s no especially good reason to select the simplest of two explanations with equal predictive value. That’s really just a kludge for simplicity’s sake, and it has often been proven hillariously wrong.
But at least it’s useful. Science is the cornerstone of our modern world. Without it, we might still be living in the Iron Age (or more likely, no person like either of us would be alive,) and you’d not be reading this blog.
And then you have Science’s chief rival, at least in the sense of a body of explanatory ideas. There are arguments to suggest that Religions may be useful. Many people have found comfort in them, just as many have found paths to power, but the value of religion in this sense is sharply limited. Religion can’t make airplanes or computers or even tasty breakfast cereal. As a technological (as opposed to social, I suppose) application, Religion is broadly useless.
Math, I would say, is clearly superior to science (which relies upon it) and both clearly superior to religion (which relies on neither, but offers nothing the others don’t.) And, to reiterate the above, neither holds a single idea that we can definitively say is true. But of course, I’m talking about things from a strictly instrumentalist point of view at this point. I’ve abandoned the idea of truth in its entirety and choose only to give credence to things I consider (for no reason I can fully verify — remember, no concept of truth) to be more useful.
So what does that make me? An instrumentalist, certainly. An athiest, at least in the sense that I don’t believe in or worship any particular concept of a god and actively disbelieve in (or at least actively dislike) several others. An agnostic, perhaps, in that I accept that the existence of any particular god can only be conclusively (that is, usefully) demonstrated in the positive. A materialist? Sure. At least in the sense that I’ve found no real use in concepts that seem to transcend the material. And I guess you’d say I’m a humanist.
And, oddly, enough, it makes me a strange kind of skeptic. I have the right frame of mind, starting from the position of questioning or actively disbelieving everything, but unlike other skeptics, I don’t have the luxury of considering any given idea to be true.
I disagree with other atheists. The only thing that commonly binds Atheists is that we do not accept any religion as true. Thus while many atheists are sexual hedonists and/or anarchists, I am not (I have found no use for the first philosophy, and the second I consider plainly useless on its face.)
I disagree with other agnostics, specifically on the idea that it’s impossible to prove a god exists, or that the undecidability of the question ought necessarily to stay my hand from active disbelief.
I disagree with other skeptics, even the scientific variety (as opposed to those skeptical of science — whether it be medicine, geology, or global warming, whose propositions I find even less useful.) Many are politically conservative or libertarians, which shows that they have either failed to embrace humanism, or are less trusting of other fields of science than the ones that hold their chief interest. In fairness, I suppose it makes more sense to distrust the softer sciences (economics, sociology, anthropolgy…) than the harder ones (astronomy, geology, biology…) but I see no particular use in this position. We have no better models than the best provided us by those soft sciences, and it’s an inevitable consequence of humanism combined with instrumentalism to be firmly lead to progressive positions in light of them.
And I disagree with other materialists, specifically in the vehemence with which many of them will insist that there is nothing spiritual and nothing after death. From where I stand, the question is undecidable, and the idea they espouse saved from uselessness only by the fact that no opposing viewpoint has yet proven to have any use.
For that matter, I’ll even disagree with other humanists and progressives, in that they will often act as if things that have yet to gain solid scientific foundation are Absolute and Eternal Truth (which, of course, I know doesn’t exist,) or paint in painfully broad strokes on a very nuanced issue.
So, to sum that up, nothing’s true, and I probably disagree with you. With that I open the floor for comment.
Very thoughtful post, Bob. An enjoyable read.
One thing to consider – is it true that nothing is true? ;)