Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Dogma Reconsidered: Doctrine, Conviction, and Free Inquiry

Open-mindedness in scientific exploration was one of they key ingredients which allowed modern science to flourish. To be certain this improvement was in a matter of degree. People were never impervious to changing their minds, even if they didn’t want to. Nor are scientists today free from all hints of bias or preconceived notion. But science has fostered an attitude which encourages one to reach conclusions based on evidence rather trying to shape the evidence to one’s hypothesis. Today even that which is well established is, at least hypothetically, subject to revision, “Scientists normally do their work as if the accepted laws and theories were true. But they are obliged to keep an open mind in case new information should alter the validity of any given law or theory.” (Physics: 3rd Edition, Douglas C. Giancoli, page 7).

The new found dedication to open-mindedness was not always easily reconciled with religious beliefs. Particularly hard hit were dogmas, those belief which were so fundamental as to be considered defining aspects of a religious ideology, the rejection of which would exclude you from ideological association with that religion (and typically the promised spiritual benefits thereof). Religious doctrines stifled free inquiry and were excluded from empirical science. Even accepted scientific beliefs and observed facts are theoretically subject to revision. “The vocabulary of “hypothesis,” “theory,” and “law” is unfortunate, since it obscures the important fact that all of the general propositions of science are regarded as hypotheses, never as dogmas.” (Introduction to Logic: Fifth Edition, page 464, Irving M. Copi). To those who have entirely dismissed the supernatural dogma is presented as an anathema to science.

Now the pernicious tendency to cling to ancient theories despite new evidence was not entirely unjustified. Even today a hypothesis must be considered in light of its compatibility with widely accepted scientific theories. While the data may suggest a certain interpretation, it may not prove to be the simplest (and therefore best) once evidence beyond the immediate context is considered. The older theories were accepted in the first place because they succeeded in explaining natural phenomenon based on observation and testing. The strength of the older hypothesis’ in comparison to they younger will undoubtedly temper which is given more weight and which must be reconsidered.

But just as it “is possible…to overstate the importance of the third criterion [compatibility with previously well-established hypotheses]” (Copi, page 469) so to I believe it is possible to overstate the possibility of actually uprooting a truly sound scientific theory and the need to treat everything known as “probably correct”. Most often new evidence will not overturn a solid scientific theory at most it will require small revision. Even the more “radical” revisions only reflect directly on the periphery of existence. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity challenged Newton’s laws but for all practical purposes, “what goes up must come down.” Practically speaking there are many things about the world that we know to be true which we in no-way expect to be proven false, nor should we seriously entertain the possibility.

Therefore what is important is not to deny certainty on every topic under the sun, which no one really does, but to maintain an intellectually honest pursuit of the truth. From my own experience I can attest that doing so can overcome one’s natural bias. When I set forth years ago to investigate “Messianic Prophecies”, I did so with the dogmatic view that those passages in the T’nakh would prove Jesus was the Messiah. I had no serious question about the conclusion. Nevertheless as I inquired into the meanings of the verses, to understand them correctly so as only to present solid evidence, a different picture emerged. While I did not realize it immediately the process ended with me rejecting the very dogma I started out to prove.

In this vein religious ideologies, generally speaking, do not expect us to accept a dogma despite its being false. Rather we are expected to accept them because they are true. If we feel that honest investigation would overturn our faith then we don’t really believe it in the first place. From a religious standpoint it may be better to go forward with such an investigation in order to remove the doubt. That’s not to suggest we must spend our time hunting down answers to every objection we hear, but if we are actually disturbed it may require our attention.

In closing we may benefit from a humble recognition of our limited understanding and own ability to error. The solution to holding an incorrect dogma is not the categorical rejection of all certainty in belief, physical or metaphysical. It is to be honest in our pursuit of the truth. Fear of an undesired conclusion is a lack of faith. We must recognize that there are things we misunderstand or lack a full understanding. We must also that if our belief is on a firm foundation and otherwise sound then their may be resolutions to problems which become apparent that we fail to see do to our own limitations.

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