Not a blog about the science or practice of travel through books, but perhaps rather about science, practice and travel through books.

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Skeptics and True Believers

Book coverOf course I’m a skeptic. To study or do science you have to be, since science is based on organised skepticism, in which truth is not a static, absolute quantity, but an evolving one. Yet I’ve been cautious about labeling myself as “skeptic” in public. Why? Because I’ve often had problems identifying with self-proclaimed skeptics, those whose goal in life seems to be to debunk other people’s myths, tell other people how wrong they are in their believes, expulse mystery from nature and preach science in an almost missionary way. I don’t say we don’t need myth-bunkers, we absolutely do, but for me skepticism is mainly about questioning my own truths, what I take for granted.

So I was glad when I came over this book, Skeptics and True Believers, by Chet Raymo, a self-proclaimed skeptic that I could identify very well with. What I love about Raymo is that, being a physicist and skepticist, still admit that he’s a human being with the normal needs for mystery and awe and a longing for God. As he writes, “Finding the proper balance between yearning and learning can keep us occupied for a lifetime. […] Yearning without learning is seeing the face of Jesus in a gassy nebula. Learning without yearning is seeing only the gas.” [pp. 59-61] While some enthusiastic skeptics like Richard Dawkins tend to almost attack the reader, Raymo goes into something more like a critical dialogue, which I find to be more in the spirit of a true skeptic. 

He starts the book by defining two intellectual postures to be used throughout the whole book: Skeptic and True Believer. This may seem a bit silly at first, especially as they are written out capitalized all the time, but it’s nevertheless quite useful for distinguishing an intellectual position from the person taking on that position.

I very much enjoyed his chapters on knowledge and perceptions, and his discussion on “fairy” and “double-helix DNA” as two different mental constructs, both removed from immediate sensation. While a fairy is just a “little person with dragonfly wings”, DNA is a two metre long double-helix curled up inside every living cell much like a knitting yarn, yet nevertheless able to copy itself almost perfectly all the time without entangling in a single big knot! So with DNA being far more  far-fetched and difficult to imagine than fairies, with DNA being much “farther away” from our immediate sensations, why do we accept DNA as being more “real” than fairies? The key is that DNA is part of a web of interconnected constructs related to immediate sensation in the form of experimental results. Removing the construct “DNA” makes sensations go unexplained, while removing the construct “fairy” makes no sensations go unexplained.

Citing the British writer and cartographer Tim Robinson, “Miracles are explainable; it is the explanations that are miraculous.”

Finally, I love the following metaphor, as Raymo first used in his book, Honey from the Stone:

Let this, then, be the ground of my faith: All that we know, now and forever, all scientific knowledge that we have of this world, or will ever have, is an island in the sea [of mystery]… We live in our partial knowledge as the Dutch live on polders claimed from the sea. We dike and fill. We dredge up soil from the bed of mystery and build ourselves room to grow. And still the mystery surrounds us. It laps at our shores. It permeates the land. Scratch the surface of knowledge and mystery bubbles up like a spring. And occasionally, at certain disquieting moments in history (Aristarchus, Galileo, Planck, Einstein), a tempest of mystery comes rolling in from the sea and overwhelms our efforts, reclaims knowledge that has been built up by the years of patient work, and forces us to retreat to the surest, most secure core of what we know, where we huddle in fear and trembling until the storm subsides, and then we start building again, throwing up dikes, pumping, filling, extending the perimeter of our knowledge and our security.

If we accept that knowledge is a finite island in a sea of inexhaustible mystery, then two corollaries follow: (1) The growth of the island does not diminish the sea’s infinitude, and (2) the growth of the island increases the length of the shore along which we encounter mystery.

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