Why are we here

Image credit http://www.flickr.com/photos/the_gordons/
(Photo credit: the gordons)

I spent rather a long time contemplating the creation of this site. There seem to be many good reasons not to bother, including but not limited to:

  • What do I have to say that merits reading; hasn’t everything of value been expressed before, by my intellectual and literary superiors?
  • Aren’t I setting myself up for failure and facing an inevitable fate of blog-atrophy? Untended sites bleach lonely in the sun, soon colonized and eventually overgrown by spam comments. Abandoned pages linger in their decrepitude, the forlorn message of their prime lost to the entropy of an uncaring internet.
  • Won’t people read the above bullet-point and think “What a pretentious git, thinks he can write all fancy..” ?
  • What if my opinions anger people, and they burn down my internet?
  • For that matter, who are these alleged people? Will anyone in fact find this site and stay long enough to care? Why are you here, if you are at all?

I’ll try not to be pretentious, and as for my writing I will consider it a victory if I can communicate without you dosing off or becoming irate too often.

I feel like a speck on the cosmic ocean, with a hat-tip to Sagan. I am filled with awe at the incomprehensibility of the cosmos, and the evident reality that our universe has evolved rudimentary internal sense organs (life) with which to discover itself. But I’m not a cosmic hippie, by any means. I doubt most of my posts will consist of “wow, check out this awesome space image”. Though there are many awesome images, there are already quite a number of interpages on which to find them.

Neither will you find me selling truth here. There are plenty of vendors for that already, so it’s a tough market to break into. There’s not much quality control, though, and I have come to doubt there’s much quality in the first place. Be skeptical of anyone who claims to possess truth (or a map of how to get there).

What I will do is talk about what I think, why (or whether) I believe it’s right, and, oftener than not, why I think other people are wrong. That last one not just because it’s fun to be mean, but because with a little careful reasoning it is often easy to refute even a subtle fallacy or cognitive bias. By contrast it’s a much harder task to show that something is right, or even likely to be right. But there are tools we can use.

I’m talking about science, and more broadly, reasoned discourse and critical thinking. I don’t claim to have a privileged frame of reference about these things; in fact I strongly request peer review and critique. See, I’m a bit of an odd duck– I’m not afraid of being wrong, and I’ll usually want to continue an argument until all sides come to the same understanding. Not to prove I’m right, but to find out if I am.

Of course if you’re paying attention you’ll see that I’ve already contradicted myself. According to 3 paragraphs up I claimed there’s no such thing as being right, rather one can only:

  • Be logically wrong due to invalid reasoning
  • Be very probably wrong due to contradictory evidence
  • Be likely wrong due to a stronger theory running circles around yours
  • Be not yet demonstrated as wrong by any of the above 🙂

Yep, that’s the best we can do: “not known to be wrong at this time”. So when I casually lob terms like right or true about, that’s usually shorthand for “as far as is currently understood” either by me, by some community consensus, etc. Is this unfortunate? Does lacking truth put us at a disadvantage to others who seem to spout it incessantly? I say no; in fact I believe we have the upper hand.

Truth, by definition, must be correct, immutable. Sounds good, right? But “correct” based on what? If you populate your head with truths then you run into trouble when incompatible information comes along. Your possible actions are basically:

  • Accept both truths, and try to ignore the ever-growing friction of cognitive dissonance by believing that there is a smarter person (or being) for whom all these pieces fit harmoniously together. This is the solution of a child, who builds understanding up in pieces over time and, for the most part, trusts that adults have got the harder stuff covered. It also works for believers in the virtue of a higher power, such as a god, leader, or government.
  • Choose to accept one truth and reject the other, based on some personal or social criteria. Keeping the first truth and rejecting someone else’s is the solution of a believer. Adopting the new truth and forsaking the old one is the solution of a convert.

That sounds a bit harsh perhaps, but this is the way almost everyone I know was brought up to think. It seems strange, almost like some unethical psychology experiment in how limiting critical thinking skills at an early age will affect society. But, I digress. To fill the vacuum of truth up with knowledge, we have figured out some clever frameworks to help us form and test theories, argue about them, account for our own bias, and collaborate on building a better understanding.

Science is an open-source approach to thinking. Many people collaborate using the same rules to amplify their individual efforts and achieve far grander results. Add together a lot of people and time, shake well, and now instead of dancing to make it rain we are measuring the exact age of the universe. Each person need not understand every facet of scientific knowledge to derive benefit from it. We can “believe” that (for practical purposes) it’s right. But if desired, all the tools and information are out there– each structure of theories ready to be scrutinized, improved, or replaced with a more compelling alternative.

So fine, we don’t get truth per se, but we do get an ever-refined understanding of the cosmos. And some other cool stuff falls out along the way such as modern medicine, and this intarnet.

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