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Elementary My Dear Watson! The Beauty (and Baloney) of Being Right about Everything

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Elementary my dear Watson! by Wikimedia Commons

Fate is the most potent weapon in a the arsenal of determinists like Stephen Hawking . To contend, as determinists plainly do, that the outcomes of events are pre-determined is essentially the same as saying that the ebbs and flows of history are all dictated by fate. Actors, whether animate or inanimate, have no control over the manner in which they proceed, or influence and interact with events. Actors are merely pawns in a vast drama that is "directed" down to the minutest wobble of sub-atomic particles by the omnipotent intervention of fate.  Determinists make much of the intricate twists and turns of fate that, in hindsight, seem to portend the ultimate success or failure of particular events. For example, had John Frederick Parker remained at his post instead of sneaking out to a tavern, he would very likely have foiled John Wilkes Booth's plot to assassinate President Lincoln. However, in a deterministic universe Parker was never in control of his fate, nor for that matter were Booth or Lincoln. In spite of any lamentations to the contrary, determinists would insist that Parker was destined to shirk his responsibilities and, thus, Honest Abe's fate was sealed long before he, Parker or Booth ever arrived at Ford's Theatre.

The problem with employing fate or destiny as a means of explaining the course of events is that such a perspective operates on the basis of deductive dogmatism rather than inductive falsifiability. Determinists explain everything that occurs in the universe as an outcome of an infallible master narrative: if an apple falls from a tree, or a star explodes in the Andromeda Galaxy, then determinists will insist that those events transpired precisely how and when they did because an insuperable chain of causality preordained each outcome. The magic of this type of deductive thinking--which, once again, is predicated on a dogmatic allegiance to an "infallible" master narrative--is that it can be used to explain anything and everything. However, as Karl Popper articulated so convincingly, deductive theories that purport to explain everything in fact succeed in explaining nothing scientifically. How much more do we understand about the universe, if we answer questions about its beginning, evolution, and eventual conclusion with the statement: "Whatever happens during the long life of the universe does so because it was "meant to be.'"? Answers of this nature offer no new insights, rather they only succeed in propagating deduction-based ignorance.
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It is precisely because of the intrinsic flaws of deductive reasoning that scientists and theologians often disagree so vehemently: theological reasoning is predicated upon strict adherence to a deductive faith (e.g., God created the universe in six days), whereas Karl Popper has demonstrated that scientific progress is based upon generating testable statements that cannot be verified, but can only be falsified. In short, theologians are faithful (i.e., deduction inhibits inquiry-based enlightenment because, first and foremost, deduction is predicated upon strict adherence to faith-based dictums) where scientists are skeptical (i.e., since it is impossible to verify truths, scientists endeavor to improve extant theories by identifying their intrinsic flaws).  

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Although strictly speaking Stephen Hawking 's brand of determinism may not be a form of "religion" per se, nevertheless, determinism employs essentially the same type of teleological dogmatism as faith-based theologies. Like many theologies, determinism does not lend itself to being tested. Just as it is with Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc., either you believe in the basic tenets of determinism, or you don't. In order to generate scientific support for any one of the above-listed faiths, the faiths would need to articulate statements or predictions that are empirically testable. The problem with deductive dogmatism is that, even in the face of copious quantities of falsifying evidence (e.g., archaeological, geological, and astronomical evidence which compellingly demonstrates that the universe was not created by the Christian god during the week of Sunday, October 23, 4004 BCE) , dogmatists will blithely reject any interpretation of the evidence that contravenes their faith.

In other words, deductive reasoning tends to emphasize, first and foremost, faith in a particular theoretical perspective. As such, in practice, deductive logic has a tendency to privilege evidence which supports the assumptions of one's preferred orienting theory while discounting, suppressing or otherwise failing to properly consider countervailing evidence. For example, no matter how well evolution may explain the relevant scientific facts, from the creationist standpoint evolutionary theory appears wrongheaded--precisely because evolution puts facts before theory. All too often, facts tend to be judged, or deduced relative to one's beliefs. For example, if someone believes that God created the universe in six days, then it is simply a matter of faith to deduce that God also sculpted the Grand Canyon, complete with all of its fossil-laden stratigraphy, in naught but the blink of an eye. For creationists, the universe exists as God made it and for reasons that are scrutable only to God. No further explanation is required. From a creationist standpoint, the relevant facts are deductively compelling and, thus, verify rather than falsify a continuing belief in creationism. As in any debate, depending upon one's orienting assumptions, the interpretation and perceived importance of seemingly objective facts can conflict diametrically.

On the other hand, it is possible for scientific debate regarding the nature of fossil evidence to diverge from the normal path and instead pursue a more revolutionary intellectual agenda. Once again, upon encountering facts (i.e., fossilized evidence of extinction) that did not readily fit within the creationist paradigm, Georges Cuvier and other scholars developed a catastrophist perspective that remedied a number of shortcomings in the creationist perspective. Through the more sophisticated lens of catastrophism, fossilized evidence of extinction revealed new truths about the complex process of divine creation and destruction. Yet, when Darwin examined very similar fossil evidence, he concluded that essentially the same facts revealed entirely different truths--and he managed to achieve one of the most important scientific breakthroughs in history by "redefining reality."

Redefining Reality

Believe it or not, Darwin began his career as a credulous disciple of creationism. Consequently, it would have made sense for Darwin to assess facts, cling to established truths, and normalize anomalies in a fashion very similar to Georges Cuvier. Yet, rather than creatively reinventing his guiding paradigm and, thus, preserving and validating the truths that buttressed creationism, Darwin struck out in an altogether new intellectual direction: Darwin posited a biological, rather than a divine explanation for the origin and extinction of species.

Redefining reality is a process through which individuals can challenge inadequate paradigms through a combination of astute observation and an ingenious capacity for innovative cognition (i.e., agency). The notion of redefinable reality posits, in agreement with Popper's realist philosophy, that there is a universe "out there" that exists independently of human cognition. As such, I argue that universal Truth does exist, but such Truth is not (nor will it ever be) contained within extant scientific paradigms. Rather, The Truth extends infinitely into the unlocked mysteries of the expanding universe. In other words, reality is what it is: an asteroid is an asteroid is an asteroid, etc" Truth is an intrinsic, inseparable feature of phenomena as they exist independently of human perception. Lies and distortions come into existence via humanity's vast capacity for ignorance: humans view the illimitable universe through awed and flawed psyches. Although admirable in many ways, the human grasp of infinite mysteries remains woefully incomplete. Nevertheless, the process of redefining reality permits limited human psyches to transcend the limitations of inadequate paradigms in pursuit of a grander vision of Truth.

The process of redefining reality often begins when agents make unanticipated observations, e.g., "Hey! Galapagos finches are more closely related than I thought." Individuals may follow up such observations by issuing a challenge to established paradigmatic restrictions, i.e., "This seems to suggest that, rather than being immutable, island species undergo transmutation." In the process of attempting to make sense of such anomalies, individuals tend to deconstruct the conceptual frameworks that limit their ability to comprehend mysterious phenomena, i.e., "Based upon what I have observed, I no longer believe that species were created in their present form by God." As individuals re-evaluate their beliefs with respect to their inability to comprehend anomalies, the features of their paradigms that do not hold up under scrutiny come under substantial erosive pressure. If individuals are persistent enough, they may reach a point at which the critical mass of their contemplations overloads the shackles of their former beliefs and, thus, they may experience a moment of truth, i.e., "Aha! Species evolve as a result of natural selection."

Moments of truth are similar to eureka experiences wherein, having deconstructed the distorting influences of inadequate paradigms, individuals successfully invent a more satisfactory definition of reality. These experiences may be considered relatively truthful in that they are generated through a process that involves the intentional negation of social controls over an individual's definition of reality. This is not to say that the redefined paradigm at which one arrives after experiencing a moment of truth is, therefore, Truth. Far from that, in keeping with the assertions of radical power theorists, I maintain that all established belief systems exert their own forms of ideological power on the construction of knowledge. Thus, to experience a moment of truth does not transport one to an ideal realm wherein Truth reigns unchallenged--as opposed to the assertions of Habermas. Instead, I merely suggest that the process of redefining reality permits individual agents to experience moments of truth within the ideologically-coercive domain of social reality. With the help of such redefined insights, agents become better equipped to negotiate with the pervasive, consciousness-distorting influences of radical power sufficiently to transcend the limitations of established paradigms for the purposes of creating better (but never perfect) paradigmatic proximations of the empirical universe. Therefore, humans have at their disposal the necessary cognitive mechanism, i.e., moments of truth, through which to do good science by taking gradual but confident steps toward a broader understanding of the infinite Truths that govern the universe.

Prof Tim teaches sociology at CSU-Pueblo and he writes books about social change, such as... A Formula for Eradicating Racism,

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It is precisely because of the intrinsic flaws of ... by Tim McGettigan on Friday, Nov 16, 2012 at 5:14:50 PM
Although strictly speaking Stephen Hawking's brand... by Tim McGettigan on Friday, Nov 16, 2012 at 5:36:44 PM
Mr. McGettigan, this is a fascinating article to s... by Bayard Waterbury on Saturday, Nov 17, 2012 at 2:17:20 PM
At present, we are only able to detect 4% of the s... by Tim McGettigan on Sunday, Nov 18, 2012 at 3:01:26 PM
Reductionism needs linear relationships. Physics r... by Lon Jones on Sunday, Nov 18, 2012 at 8:42:06 AM
Lots of scientific theories, one being biological ... by Tim McGettigan on Sunday, Nov 18, 2012 at 3:05:48 PM