I am a product of western, and particularly American, culture: fiercely independent, wary of authority, and inherently skeptical. As a result, I bring a significant bias to the discussion which follows.
My lovely wife comes from a culture, background, and spiritual tradition vastly different from my own. Her default position is egalitarian when it comes to spiritual or metaphysical claims. In many ways, she is a pure Pragmatist; taking the stance that if a particular belief or system of beliefs “works” for an individual, the belief is instrumentally true. I have written on my own Pragmatism but have come to understand that my Pragmatism has its limits. That is, for the most part I too believe that beliefs are instrumentally true as they form an internal “truth narrative” for each individual and perform an essential function in how human beings formulate, and then act upon, a defined worldview. My wife, like most of us, judges the value of a belief, idea, or notion on the real-world outcomes it produces. If the belief creates happiness within an individual or wider culture, it is good. Conversely, if the belief creates despair and depression it is not good. This is, of course, a gross oversimplification of my wife’s rather robust sense of ethics but it is fair to say that in general, she is a consequentialist. I have studied and written on Utilitarianism, the most widely-known form of consequentialism and, like my wife, recognize its value. I do, however, consider consequentialism to be a “secondary ethic” meaning that consequentialism can only function under the auspices of a “primary ethic” which defines an ultimate good or end.
My own sense of ethics is an odd mixture of a Christian-informed theism, deontology, and consequentialism. I believe in God but have no real definition of God’s nature. At times I lean towards Deism due to the problem of evil but regardless, believe in the divine even though I have no strong feelings about how the divine functions within the world. Additionally, I argue vigorously that ethics can an do, exist without God. God is not requisite for morality, nor does morality eliminate the divine. Divinity informs morality but does not define it.
I am heavily influenced by the writings of Kant and Hume. The notion that people and ideas have an inherent value, and should thus be treated with the ultimate respect and care — not as means to some end — persuades me. However, I also recognize that we live in a real, dynamic, ever-changing world. Many times, the evaluation of consequences or utility is all we have and we cannot be morally paralyzed by metaphysical uncertainty.
As a result of my worldview and experience there are certain claims, spiritual and otherwise, for which I struggle to find any sympathy whatsoever. Indeed, in some cases, these claims evoke a visceral antipathy. This discussion is my attempt to understand why, if I am a Pragmatist, do some claims cause this antipathy and more importantly to explore the question of how these claims should be approached by one who seeks to promote mutual respect, tempered by an awareness that claims, ideas and beliefs not only have consequences, but an inherent moral component.
First, I will briefly explain why I find the scientific method and critical thinking so appealing. The scientific method attempts to remove individual bias, as much as possible, in establishing what we would call facts. That water is comprised of 2 hydrogen atoms and 1 oxygen atom is an established fact. It is not subject to interpretation. Rather, it simply is. How did we learn the chemical makeup of water? By applying the scientific method over and over again. This fact has been observed by thousands (if not tens of thousands) of researchers and students from different countries, religious, cultures, and ethnicities. It is not open to subjective interpretation. Objective facts provide a baseline for all conversation. To use a philosophical term, facts are first principles; they are the foundation upon which all claims are based.
Established facts help us identify scientific laws. For example, the law of gravity states that when we drop an object, it will fall to the earth. Laws form clear if/then statements. If X occurs, then Y will also occur. Scientific theories represent attempts to explain the mechanism by which laws operate. Based on the work of Albert Einstein, for example, physicists believe that gravity is a function of the mass of objects bending space and time. Theories allow us to make predictions. It was not until a specific astronomical event, that Einstein’s theory gained observable evidence to support it. Since that time, many events and experiments have allowed us to subject Einstein’s theory to intense scrutiny. So far, it has held up (with one exception that I will describe below).
In 2011, researchers at CERN performed an experiment which produced results inconsistent with the predictions of Einstein’s theory. Neutrinos appeared to travel faster than light — an absolute impossibility according to Einstein. The CERN researches, absolutely baffled by these results, made the data produced by their experiment publicly available and described, in incredible detail, how the experiment was conducted. Essentially, these researchers were asking their peers: “What are we missing? Has our experiment been constructed in such a way as to produce erroneous results?” As it turns out, other researchers were able to isolate an error in the experiment which explained the erroneous results.
It would have been quite simple for the CERN researches to “jump the gun” and claim a monumental discovery. Had they done so, many would have likely believed the claim. However, these researchers understood the implications of their results and asked their peers for help. This was the most responsible course of action. It was measured. It was humble. It was honest.
To be continued …..