Friday, February 21, 2014

What works wins?

How many ways are there to "know"? That is, to obtain knowledge of the world?

1. Intuition.

2. Tradition.

3. Supernatural revelation.

4. Gurus.

5. Science.

Am I missing something?

All of these no doubt at least occasionally hit upon "the truth," and all of them at least occasionally get something wrong.

But are they equally reliable?

Only one way of knowing has self-correcting mechanisms built into the process. Organized doubt.

In the current New Yorker, staff writer Adam Gopnick has an interesting and balanced essay on declining faith in God in developed countries. He speaks of theists and atheists, Super-Naturalists and Self-Makers, or simply the yeses and noes. And he says this about the latter:
And here we arrive at what the noes, whatever their numbers, really have now, and that is a monopoly on legitimate forms of knowledge about the natural world. They have this monopoly for the same reason that computer manufacturers have an edge over crystal-ball makers: the advantages of having an actual explanation of things and processes are self-evident. What works wins.
Implicit in this statement is a close correlation between secularism and science. For two reasons:

1. Reliable knowledge of how the world works leaves less for a God or gods to do. If comets follow predictable gravitational paths, we don't read them as supernatural signs.

2. Reliable knowledge of how the world works leads to life enhancing technologies. People without constant toothache, enough to eat, and a low incidence of death in childbirth, have less need of a God or gods to alleviate their suffering.

By their fruits you will know them. The fruits of science are manifest. I sometimes hold to things for intuitive reasons when science is silent. Same for tradition. I see no evidence for supernatural revelation, and I've yet to encounter a guru who didn't strike me as a charlatan.

Science occasionally gets things wrong, but overwhelmingly it works. Even the charlatans like to wrap themselves in its mantle.