Monday, August 20, 2012

A little knowledge

The original statement by Alexander Pope [1688-1744] spoke of learning: A little learning is a dangerous thing. Since then, we've usually heard people telling us that it's a little knowledge that can be considered dangerous. This warning is trivially true in cases where you can choose (at least theoretically, if not in practice) between the two extremes: a little knowledge, or a lot of knowledge. A child might have just discovered that striking a match produces a pretty flame. And that knowledge is indeed dangerous as long as the child is unaware that such a flame can give rise to a catastrophe. When humanity first discovered fire (probably after a lightning strike), maybe a doomsayer in the tribe warned: "My brothers and sisters, this discovery is surely a malediction. We must forget about it forever."

The primeval case of "a little knowledge" was, of course, the legend of a tree in Eden—no doubt a fig tree, but presented in translation as an apple tree—whose fruit were forbidden.

It is ridiculous, however, to condemn systematically "a little knowledge" as a dangerous possession. In domains in which we know next to nothing, the concept of "a little knowledge" can often be thought of as speculation, and this is the basis of scientific discovery and research. We content ourselves with speculative theories on reality up until such time as they are shown to be false, when we replace them by alternative theories. That, after all, was the spirit of the quest for the Higgs boson.

Satyendra Nath Bose, after whom the particle was named,
and Peter Higgs, who imagined a very peculiar boson

For decades, physicists had so little knowledge concerning this particle that they weren't even sure it existed!

In my personal family-history research, I've run into a kind of "Higgs boson". I'm referring to the first male in England (presumably a colonist from Normandy) whose descendants would be the future Skeffington family (which would give rise to folk named Skevington, Skivington, Skyvington, etc). My knowledge of this individual is almost non-existent. But he surely existed, at some time and in some place, probably Leicestershire. So, I find myself making speculations about his identity. Inevitably, I run into fellow-researchers who say: "You have no firm proofs for what you're suggesting." That's to say, these rigid observers (accustomed to requesting an individual's birth certificate before accepting his existence) are trying to persuade me that I don't have the right to speculate. Their criticism is not only counterproductive; it's unscientific. So, I ignore it.

Finally, there's a ubiquitous domain in which we have very little knowledge, to say the least. I'm referring to religion, and the belief in God. Here again, I don't consider that there's any "danger" in talking about God, even though we possess so little direct knowledge concerning His alleged existence. But the same rules of the game must be applied in the case of those who say that God does not exist. In that respect, the best example of all concerns the marvelous subject of miracles. In The Magic of Reality, Richard Dawkins devotes his entire final chapter to this question. In particular, in a section entitled A good way to think about miracles, he presents the clever method proposed by the Scottish philosopher David Hume [1711-1776].

Hume said:
No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle unless that testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish.
Consider, for example, the case of 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous who, on 11 February 1858 in Lourdes (south-west France), experienced the first of a series of alleged visions of the Virgin Mary.

Applying Hume's criterion, we reason as follows:

— Clearly, the appearance of the Virgin Mary at Lourdes was a miracle.

— We are told by her adulators that it would have been unthinkable for Bernadette Soubirous to have invented a false story about her encounters with a vision of the Virgin Mary. Let us nevertheless imagine, for a moment, the totally shocking hypothesis that the saintly child might have lied.

— Now, which of the two above-mentioned extraordinary happenings would be the more astounding: the Virgin Mary's presence at Lourdes, or Bernadette's hypothetical lies?

— Clearly, there is nothing particularly "miraculous" in the idea that a simple-minded peasant girl might resort to inventing false stories. Consequently, Hume's criterion suggests that we should not accept the miracle of Lourdes.

Notice, in particular, that our use of Hume's criterion to cast doubt upon the veracity of the miracle of Lourdes does not call upon us to actually prove that Bernadette was a liar. It suffices to notice that the hypothesis of Bernadette's lying, no matter how unlikely such an idea might appear to those who knew the girl well, was less extraordinary than the utterly miraculous idea of the Virgin Mary making a personal appearance at Lourdes. So, if an adulator of the Virgin Mary and Bernadette Soubirous were to complain that we've rejected the idea of a miracle without even attempting to prove that the peasant girl had indeed invented her stories, that would simply mean that the detractor has not understood, yet alone accepted, Hume's reasoning. In the context of the life and death of Jesus, too, alleged miracles can be debunked by means of Hume's metaphorical "razor" without the necessity of our having to prove anything whatsoever.

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