Our most reliable pathway to truth

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Ian McKay
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Our most reliable pathway to truth

Post by Ian McKay » Fri Mar 17, 2017 10:18 am

Our most reliable pathway to truth

A few weeks ago I took part in a survey conducted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. I was asked the question: If you had just six words to advocate for science, what would you say? My six-word answer was: Our most reliable pathway to truth.

The organisers now tell me that my answer has been selected for publication and they want me to answer some supplementary questions. Of that, more later.

But some of my friends might contest the idea that science is our most reliable pathway to truth.

Fundamentalist friends might say divine revelation is our most reliable pathway to truth.

Rationalist friends might say logic and reason are our most reliable pathway to truth.

Lawyers, judges and politicians might say free and open debate is our most reliable pathway to truth.

So why do I think differently?

Divine revelation would indeed be a wonderful source of truth if only we could be sure that what we call divine revelation really IS divine revelation. But it is all too easy to be mistaken about this. For instance, Jim Taylor declared that he only said what the Lord gave him to say, and yet he spouted loads of appalling rubbish. He thought it was divine revelation when clearly it was not.

John Hales depended on the Bible to settle facts about the physical universe, but every time he did this he got it completely wrong (climate change, the age of meteorites, how diamonds are formed, problems of overpopulation and what happened to the bones of animals killed in the flood). He thought his interpretation of the Bible amounted to divine revelation, but the Bible is rich in poetry and metaphor and he went hopelessly wrong by taking the most literal meaning out of it, as well as making assumptions about the scope of its statements.

What about logic and reason? Why do I think science is better than they are? First, because science uses logic and reason, but has the advantage of using more than logic and reason. It uses observations of the events around us, including observation of the results of experiments. Secondly, logic and reason by themselves have never been able to tell us much about the material universe. They can tell us everything about mathematics, and they can tell us what kind of universes are possible, but by themselves, without observation, they can’t tell us what kind of universe actually exists.

If you stick to the recognised rules of propositional logic or predicate logic then you can construct valid arguments that are extremely reliable, more reliable even than science; indeed, I know of not a single instance where they have failed, but their scope is limited. On their own, without the rest of science, they can’t make us healthy, wealthy, wise, safe, peaceful or civilised.

What about free and open debate as a pathway to truth? It’s a good idea, but if many of the people engaging in the debate are ill-informed, or if they are driven by feelings, emotions and partisan loyalties, then it is just as likely to be a pathway to prejudice. Recent events in the UK, the USA and some European countries provide troubling examples of this. Some internet debates are even worse. But compared with debate, the methods of science are relatively immune to feelings, emotions and partisan loyalties.

So how reliable IS science, and what can it do for us?

Scientific knowledge is never quite 100 per cent reliable, and its scope is limited too. It can tell us a lot about what is true or false, but it can’t tell us much about what is good or bad, or what is beautiful or ugly. For these questions we often have to turn to religion, philosophy and the arts.

But despite its limitations, science has contributed massively to our wellbeing. It has controlled or eradicated many of our diseases; it has given us many methods of generating wealth; it has massively expanded our ability to feed our populations; it has helped us to understand what drives human behaviour, and thereby how to promote peace and safety. It has solved many of the pressing problems that have afflicted humanity, and it has the potential to solve many of the problems that remain. And by its predictive power it has revealed to us emerging problems that we would not otherwise have known about, giving us the opportunity to prevent future disasters.

It also has cultural value. By revealing to us the vast scale and age of the universe, and the staggering complexity of living things, and by recognising our huge areas of ignorance, it engenders humility and awe. By following evidence wherever it may lead, it engenders honesty. By providing honest and respected criteria of truth, it protects us against deceivers and controllers, and thereby protects our liberty.

For all these reasons, it has the potential to demolish Exclusive Brethrenism. No wonder BDH said, “I hope we don't have any would-be scientists.” See BDH Vol 80 page 89-90 (Newtown, 10 October 2008).

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Re: Our most reliable pathway to truth

Post by Zobstick » Fri Mar 17, 2017 11:03 am

Thank you Ian for that fascinating insight into truth - but as usual, I have a question. Well loads actually, but that is the nature of zobsticks these days...

What is truth, and will we as a species ever know it?

I re-visited my soft EB youth last week at a funeral for an elderly aunt, and was able to have a similar conversation with a couple of EB relatives. About the best that they could give me was that the word of god as revealed in the bible is the truth, and that anything else is lies - yes they were that dogmatic!

Personally, I take the approach that truth is a journey, not a destination. Maybe we will never know true truth, but that shouldn't detract from us making the effort.

Ian McKay
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Re: Our most reliable pathway to truth

Post by Ian McKay » Fri Mar 17, 2017 11:54 am

I like your suggestion that truth should be seen as a journey or a direction in which to travel, and a well worthwhile pursuit. To call it a destination implies that we can reach it, but absolute Truth is difficult to reach, unless perhaps in mathematics.

When discussing the wisdom and insights contained in the Bible I have a problem with the reckless way the Brethren apply the word Truth. Nearly all the teachings of Judaism and Christianity are couched in metaphorical terms, and I don’t think metaphors can usefully be classified as true or false. They are not like mathematical propositions. Metaphors can be classified as enlightening or misleading; apt or inapt; useful or worthless; beautiful or plain; challenging or impotent; lofty or mundane; inspirational or depressing; but not really as true or false. There is no agreed criterion for deciding whether a metaphor is true.

Moral principles likewise can hardly be classified as true or false. They are more usefully classified as good or bad.

Truth has sometimes been defined as correspondence with fact. If you say it’s raining where you are, then your statement is true if and only if it actually is raining where you are. There are ways of testing it. But there is no way of testing the truth of a statement like, “Terrible influences about the equality of women are coming from the devil.” (John S. Hales New Series Vol. 27 page 196, Sydney, 3 November 1974).

One of the useful things about truth is that if something is true then to believe it is nearly always beneficial to the believer. But it is rather dangerous to turn that general principle round and say that if a belief brings benefits, then it must be true. That was William James’s criterion of truth, and it is dangerous because it is misused by political and religious leaders to invent “truths” based only on their imagined benefits.

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Re: Our most reliable pathway to truth

Post by fisherman » Fri Mar 17, 2017 2:49 pm

I was at a Mormon memorial for my children's aunt last week and the bishop repeated the Mormon creed ,including ' the requirement for salvation was to be baptized into the Mormon church' and ' there is a living prophet on earth today who reveals Gods word to us' ending it by stating ' I testify these things are the truth'.( I did not join the congregation's 'amen',been there done that)

One has to be rather careful about using the bible to back up ones theories about creation( there's that word 'creation' again!) the Middle Ages church burned people at the stake for 'questioning ' the 'truth' that the world was flat and the sun revolved around it...in the early days brethren came up with reasons why air travel was wrong because the devil was the 'prince and power over the air'( wish they had still held that great 'truth',might have spared us the frequent inundation of the Hales,or at least slowed them down a bit) and they banned computors, garage door openers and cell phones as 'evil' on the same grounds( until we got 'new light' and found there was big money leasing them to the saints)

Some may remember this, but in the early 60's when I was in highschool JTjr came up with a 'paper' listing all the 'truths' we held about the age of creation which would be exactly 5445 years ago according to today's reconning ,as they told me God created the universe 5400 years ago ,and that was 45 years ago...( I wonder if the age of creation is updated annually in brethren schools?)

But of trivia to those who might be inclined to dismiss the bible as 'irrelevent in modern times',I was going by a construction site and noticed the safety railing around the roof top ,which is a 'Workmans Safety Compensation' requirement ..and recalled the same 'law' written thousands of years ago requiring a parapet around the roof to prevent 'innocent bloodshed' during construction of a new house - you can find it in Deuteronomy 22:8....there's also laws prohibiting altering legal corner stones on land ...Deuteronomy 19:14 .Rules about harvesting, leaving fields fallow, providing for the indigent, food preparation, even basic sanitation- None of these ancient laws appear to be 'allegorical' but very practical.I think much of the 'science' in the bible is on a 'need to know ' basis ,not so much theoretical such as the origin or age of the universe

Ian McKay
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Re: Our most reliable pathway to truth

Post by Ian McKay » Thu Mar 23, 2017 8:49 am

In today’s Times, Jenni Russell gives an opinion on our most reliable pathway to truth. She writes,
it’s the free and rigorous scrutiny of ideas and beliefs that brings us closest to truth.

The Enlightenment’s thinkers argued that it was wrong for people to base their decisions on either emotions or a blind adherence to authority; instead they should test their assumptions and facts, examine them sceptically and only then reach a conclusion.
It is eloquently expressed and intuitively rather convincing and in good agreement with Paul’s advice to the Thessalonians, but how exactly should we test and scrutinise our ideas, beliefs, assumptions and facts?

Science plays a part here, because it tests whether our ideas, beliefs and assumptions are compatible with what we can observe in the universe around us. Logic and philosophy have a useful part to play too, because they test whether our ideas, beliefs, assumptions and facts are self-consistent or mutually contradictory.

One of the ways we know that Exclusive Brethrenism is wrong is that it repeatedly contradicts itself as well as contradicting other well established knowledge. Another way we know it is wrong is that its effects, on balance, are harmful.

The Erect Vessel
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Re: Our most reliable pathway to truth

Post by The Erect Vessel » Fri Mar 24, 2017 3:33 am

Interesting thing to me is that I have observed that decisions are made on emotion and then justified afterwards by logic, or in some cases rather doubtful logic :).

One of the things the brethren are very good at is laying blame and then adding lots of justifying statements.

Ultimately I agree with you Ian. What is the result?

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Re: Our most reliable pathway to truth

Post by arfur » Fri Mar 24, 2017 4:10 am

Jesus said " I AM the way , I AM the truth and I AM the life , no one comes to the Father except by Me."

Ian McKay
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Re: Our most reliable pathway to truth

Post by Ian McKay » Fri Mar 24, 2017 8:37 am

Jesus promoted truth as one of the cardinal virtues, but he was not pretending to be the criterion of what is true or false in fields like geography, history, geology, astronomy, chemistry, physics and biology. One of the moral lessons he taught us by example was that we should not pretend to know something when we are only guessing. When asked “when shall these things be?” he said he didn’t know. In the light of that, how much confidence can we have in people who say they do know?

Several Brethren leaders have pretended to know better than Jesus did and have estimated the approximate date of the end times, but they have all been proved hopelessly wrong so far. Similarly, some Brethren leaders have pretended to know various facts about history, minerals, biology, geology, languages, meteorology and the future, but they often got their facts ridiculously wrong.

Perhaps they are too concerned to preserve their own reputations as sources of all wisdom and truth. Perhaps that prevents them from answering most questions by saying, “I don’t know.” But if they were as honest as that, there would not be much for the Bible and Gospel Trust to print.

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Re: Our most reliable pathway to truth

Post by fisherman » Fri Mar 24, 2017 2:27 pm

'Decisions based on emotion and then justified later on logic' I can think of no better example than my EB friend who told me on learning of JTrs disgraceful public exposure at Aberdeen,' even though it looks really bad , if we judge JTJrs actions at Aberdeen as evil,then all his ministry comes into question and the whole truth of the recovery will be lost and we simply canot allow that to happen'...BDH tried the same thing by intimidating people who 'questioned Our Beloved's Purity'...they simply could not face the truth,if it cost them their deeply held beliefs that the brethren 'held the truth'...it appears BDH had a much simpler motive,his financial empire would collapse and the 'gifts' would dry up....the same could be said of the church in the Middle Ages strenuously clinging to the 'truth' that the world was flat and the sun revolved around it...chances are it asn't the facts that bothered them as much as that Science challanged their control,and this appears to be similar to the brethrens motivation in refusing to admit JTjr was suffering the effects of alcoholic dementia...

I suggest the the bible is a 'how to' manual based on morality and relationships ,beginning with our relationship with God,then with each other ....the marvelous thing being God actually wanting a relationship with man.Science and Technology has made huge advances in our knowlege and capabilities beyond the wildest imagination of the ancients, but not much has changed in our morality and human nature,and it is THAT ,that the bible addresses.How old or vast the universe is while intensely interesting has little to do with getting along with each other...and that was summed up most eloquently by Christ saying 'love your neighbour as yourself'...based on humankinds record of wars and greed ,I sometimes wonder if much has changed at all...

The Questioner
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Re: Our most reliable pathway to truth

Post by The Questioner » Sat Mar 25, 2017 6:30 am

If the Bible is a 'how to' manual then we might be in a bit of trouble.

Adulterer? Stone them. Multiple wives? No problem of you're sufficiently important. A bit of cheating to get what you want? Go for it. Want something someone else has? Knock the day lights out of them making sure not even a child or an animal is left.

Or follow the teachings of Jesus Christ and do none of the above.

It's all in the same bible, so a bit of care is needed. A lot of care.

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