The Mind of God (EDIT14)|
"It ain't necessarily so*
."An Editorial Comment
It's the scientific method; not the scientific faith.
"Human beings have all sorts of beliefs. The way in which they arrive at them varies from reasoned argument to blind faith. Some beliefs are based on personal experience, others on education, and others on indoctrination. Many beliefs are no doubt innate: we are born with them as a result of evolutionary factors.
"Some beliefs we feel we can justify, others we hold because of "gut feelings." Obviously many of our beliefs are wrong, either because they are incoherent, or because they conflict with other beliefs, or with the facts."
This is how physicist and Arizona State University professor Paul Davies begins his 1993 book, The Mind of God.
Those few sentences sure caught my attention. You see, I've always been puzzled by the curious behaviour that we as people display when it comes to solving problems especially those that involve the larger social issues like crime, poverty and war. The way we try to solve these problems is often the same way we tried to solve them in the past. In many cases these same old solutions also turn out, once again, to be wrong.
I base this assessment, not on some arbitrary standard of right or wrong—of correct or incorrect—I try to look at the results. As an example, let's look at the fact that a certain, predictable percentage of people among us insist on anti-social behavior. This can range from petty crime to road rage to carelessly tossing trash out of a car window while sailing down some highway.
The typical reaction of especially the officials and opinion leaders among us, is to urge some form of education. I have always found that reaction puzzling and amusing. Do these people honestly believe that when our neighbors steal our stuff, threaten us with violence on the highway or turn our landscape into a garbage dump, that they were somehow unaware, that they needed some "education"? Please!
Of course, Professor Davies in his book has much bigger fish to fry and much bigger issues to address. His target is the meaning of, and our position in, our vast universe. As a scientist he has come to the conclusion that "science suggests ... [that] the existence of conscious organisms is a fundamental feature of the universe." Fascinating stuff for sure—and for that you can read the book—but just a little beyond our present subject.
I'm interested in Davies' comment about science. About the way in which science has proven to be such a devastatingly effective way to learn about our world as well as our universe. About how things around us work, really. Davies wants there to be no mistake about the role of rational thought, of scientific inquiry in teasing out these meanings. He sums this up with "Science Works!"
In other words, the scientific method works. The question is, why do we pay so little attention to this fact when we try to solve social issues. It's as if we are constantly confronting these things for the very first time. People, if "education" didn't solve vandalism fifty years ago, if remediating "poverty" has still not solved crime, if the "war on drugs" has only led to ever-increasing drug use, why don't we apply a little more "scientific method" to solving these problems?
If science works, why do we insist on ignoring this rational approach based on an empirical assessment of the facts, and instead, revert time and again to the same tired solutions that have failed so often in the past. Perhaps we are misinterpreting the "mind of God". Perhaps we are reading the mind of the wrong God. Maybe, just maybe, this god is one that we have made ourselves.
Maybe the god whose mind we are "reading" is no more than a projection of how we think the world should be. Not a pleasant thought but a necessary one. As long as we insist that ours are the only correct solutions, and we cloak those biases in an appeal to our "god" then we will short-circuit the debate and lose some real opportunities to improve our world.
That may be the reason things seldom do improve. It may be that our own beliefs and biases are driving our decisions which are then cloaked in an appeal to the "will of god". As a result, our social issues become unsolvable because some potential solutions are obstructed by our self-made "god".1 Because of "divine sanction" good ideas are discarded and the reasons why, are immune to criticism.
Let's be clear about this. Even in areas where we should be guided by the evidence alone, it is very hard to shake free of our core beliefs. This is even more so in areas, like human behavior, where the evidence isn't always conclusive. We shouldn't be surprised then, that in those parts of the world where religion plays a large part in people's lives, this is going to have an impact.
It is unfortunately a common notion in most religions, that those who don't share our views can be persuaded to do so, if only they "understood". If only the infidels could be "educated" they would then share our values. This leads to the notion that it is only a perverse, conscious choice that prevents people from doing the right thing. The education is then meant to clearly show people the error of their ways.
It's not much of a stretch to see how this concept is applied to public policy. Cloaked in the guise of a scientific theory of behavior, we attempt to turn sinners into saints, or at least, repentant sinners. We should not be too surprised that this approach seldom works. Endless admonitions do not often correct anti-social behavior. This in turn leads society to yet another remedy in the religious toolbox: punishment.
In the case of more serious crime, for instance, or even in how we attempt to control our children, there is often an undue emphasis on "punishment". Without making any attempt to assess results we choose punishment when this may not be the best solution. You need only look at the Muslim world with its enthusiasm for the most draconian punishments, to realize that it too is often based on the "will of God".
This is not to be confused with a tough-minded approach to anti-social behavior which can in fact be a real remedy in some cases. The idea of "tough love" comes to mind. Still, I don't pretend to know what the best solutions to our seemingly intractable social problems are, but I can certainly recognize a failed strategy when I see it. And so can you. If these failures are the result of your, or someone else's belief system don't let that close your eyes, or your minds, to more effective solutions. We don't even have to experiment with "the big issues". Let's first see if we can eliminate some of the minor annoyances like the ones I mentioned.
And please, let's not have anymore of those well meaning but totally ineffective "education" solutions! Let's try something that actually works. Speaking of education, there are some truly innovative approaches out there, to improve what is quickly becoming an unresponsive colossus—much more successful at sucking up funds than producing results. In his book, The Blank Slate, Professor Steven Pinker offers some counter-intuitive but pretty intriguing approaches to education, but that's the subject for another time.
Finally, many folks out there claim to know the mind of God. Also everyone feels their understanding is the correct one. Realistically, you can't all be right.
1 This will no doubt ruffle some feathers. The word blasphemy may even come to mind. That is certainly not the intent. We live in a pluralistic world where we subscribe to the principle which I will paraphrase here as "I disapprove of what you [believe], but I will defend to the death your right to [believe] it".* In any case, the cause of science is not very well served by having outcomes predetermined before the research is even done. Now it can be argued that even some scientists approach their task with just such an attitude. Fortunately for science they are in the minority and most researchers approach their work with a humble reverence for the facts, no matter where they may lead. But, to get back to our point, scientific rigor is sorely needed in our social sciences. If a particular methodology proves only marginally effective or not effective at all, we owe it to ourselves and to society to re-examine these approaches.
* The original expression is often (incorrectly) attributed to Voltaire. He apparently never said it but others did, to illustrate his core philosophy.
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