knowledge versus belief

Unsent letter to the scientific magazine “Nature” concerning the authors scientifically orientated laymans reflections on the subject.

Written around 2005/2006 while travelling by train to and fro my job as a technician at institute of Aesthetics, theater and music dept. University of Aarhus. Morten Brockhoff presently revised 2011

Sir, in the following I would like to present a scientifically orientated laymans reflections on the subject of knowledge versus belief. First, allow me to introduce myself. I am educated as a music teacher and presently employed as a technician in the music and theatre dpt. at the university of Århus in Denmark. On the side of my musical education I have also taught astronomy at a danish folk high school from 1992. In order to get thoroughly updated on the frontiers of science I back then opened a subscription to Nature wich I have kept ever since. Being merely an amateur I especially enjoy reading Natures extracts on scientific papers. Thus hardcore science becomes available to me without being oversimplified. Now let me address my errand: Doomsday advertisements During the past decade or so, the debate on pollution has returned from the sixties in a rather more severe version. With every year reports of dangers in our environment climb to new heights, spurred by a constant flow of scientific reports, some of wich hit a rather alarming pitch. The ongoing discussion often remind me of science fiction plots comparing humans and yeast: Both happily feasting on limited supplies while decomposing the sweets into lethal waste in the process. This double trap unavoidably leads to the end of our species, given that the purposes behind our behaviour can be reduced to simply feeding and breeding. One contemporary and highly exposed version of this theme circle the theories of global warming: In our race towards still easier access to comfort, security and consumer goods, humans rapidly exhaust our limited reservoirs of fossil fuels. During this process we produce a steep rising emission of greenhouse gases that cause dire climatical changes, ultimately threatening our very existence. The majority of articles I read on the subject of in Nature present results that supports these theories, though mostly without applying the doomsday vision. Nonetheless I, as a layman tend to interpret the conclusions in ways that portrayes humans as disturbers of a very delicate balance. With the rising frequencies and magnitudes of hurricanes and floods it even seems plausible that we have just begun to reap the consequences of our behaviour. But of course the doomsday part needs to be checked out, at the least in order to keep up some spirit. For one thing You could, for example, relish the idea that we have a good chance of mastering knowledge and techniques with wich to control or more romantically put - calm down Mother Nature. It is along such optimistic lines my family and I in modest (some would say feeble)

ways attempt to reduce our private household waste impact on the environment. That is, we try to save energy, water and gasolin, eat organic food, support non-fossil energy policy and so on. Our hope is that we hereby contribute to the reduction of threats rising from an earth-abusing life style. Doomsday denials I am, however, also contemplating a contradictionary stance: An assistant of mine recently stated firmly that he simply do not “believe” in the theory that manmade emissions has any significant impact on nature. Firstly - he argued – scientists like Nigel Calder or statisticians like Bjørn Lomborg that gainsay mainstream conclusions are kept in the cold, not because of dubious results, but simply because they do not conclude what we want them to. According to him there’s no reason to put more trust in reports pointing to manmade emissions than in reports pointing other factors – like claiming that in paleolithic times temperature risings preceded rise in CO2 levels. Conclusion: it is forces utterly beyond our control – like solar cycles for example 1 – that drives global warming. These forces are not only poorly understood, but also neglected in research budgets and consequently underestimated or even bluntly dismissed by the majority of scientists. So, rather than putting his trust in the wealth of studies arriving at similar conclusions it seems my young assistant believe that so called reason are merely results of ancient, unconscious patterns of behaviour. Thus, below the alarming but seemingly well meant discussion on climate issues, other motives are found, not at all connected to the subject in question. One objective could be that adversaries of certain political goals find it easier to recrute followers in an atmosphere of guilt created by proving that humans are the culprits of environmental disturbances. Another that we are born with a genetic tendency of loving to fear the future, this being part of shere survival instinct. Exaggerated like this, scientific results seem to be merely voices of social and psychological forces and therefore not much different from, for example, claims that catastrophic weather incidents can be explained as punishments from an angry God, or – as put forth in the recently distributed “Atlas of Creation” – our ideas of an evolving universe are merely results of a megalomane western culture, to be dismissed completely by believers of the true and only God. I find this highly unsettling, and in order to regain my balance when confronted with viewpoints as described above, my first reaction is to look for motives behind such views. Surely it is disturbing to try and acknowledge a future in grip of dire environmental changes. Hence, maybe, my young assistants stubborn denial of mankinds – i.e. his personal – share of possible responsibility. If we could “prove” that we’re not really interacting with our surroundings in any significant way, only prayers are left anyway, leaving you free to exploit every available resource and to enjoy a consumptious life here and now. Ignorance is bliss.
1 as posted by Henrik Svensmark and Nigel D. Marsh

Subjective vs. objective Also, I believe that there’s an even deeper philosophical problem at play. Because once you dismiss science as at least potentially objective, the closer you get to solipcism. If nature is essentially impossible to reach through reason, only ideas remains. Wich in turn leads to the question of who’s making up the ideas. On top of this comes the fact, that if you define the term ‘thruth’ as merely an outcome of powerplays, the closer you get to accept dictatorships (as so vividly portraied in George Orwells “1984”). So – through the ongoing discussion on highly complex topics like the global warming I recognize the following three basic notions of our potential as a species: The ancient mythological one: mankind being wraught and taught by greater, and rather abstract, beings. The disillusioned one: our kind are just another witless animal doomed to live by rules of a blind nature. The scientific one: we are uniquely able to comprehend and willfully navigate the universe (not “Star Trek-like”, though). I find that the clash in discussions like the environmental issues presented here mostly arise between the first two notions, whereas the the third, scientific way usually thrives in its own reign regardless of the debate between, say, Bjørn Lomborg and most other environmentalists or the “battle” between fundamentalist and secular powers. So, the lineouts sketched out above, are my personal reasons for maintaining the view that mankind do in fact interact with an actual surrounding nature, and that we (maybe desperately?) need to support an essentially optimistic mood in spite of dark visions. So heres to all you scientists (not being one myself): I, for one, trust that the only way forward is for science to keep up the good work, and for me to stay as well informed as possible. references: Edward O. Wilson: Consilience, the Unity of Knowledge Timothy Ferris: Coming of Age in the Milky Way George Berkeley: A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Knowledge Immanuel Kant: Kritik der Reinen Vernunft C. G. Jung: Memories, dreams, reflections C. G. Jung: Man and His Symbols Joseph Campbell: The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Metaphor As Myth and As Religion Christofer Lasch: The Culture of Narsicism Christofer Lasch: The True and Only Heaven Altlas of Creation: Harun Yahya