In my previous post, I argued that observations are always theory-dependent. However, theories might be wrong. Evidence for or against them comes from those same observations. If there is no absolute “bird’s eye view” from which to judge their truth, the absolute establishment of truth is impossible. There might be just one truth about reality, but we are not able to recognize it with absolute certainty. There is no absolute certainty and there are examples of drastic shifts of paradigms in the history of the sciences, when theories collapsed and where replaced by other ones.
This situation has not stopped scientists from making some progress. There are always some hypotheses that have to be taken without evidence and they may eventually turn out to be wrong. What is important here is a critical attitude that includes the willingness to give up or change theories if necessary and to take nothing for granted, paired with care to apply the best methodology available at a time. Striving for truth is a virtue, believing to have reached it, however, is a vice. It pays off to learn about the history and methodology of science (and its older manifestations, like “natural philosophy”).
However, the theory-dependence of observations does not only apply to science, it applies to everyday life and other aspects of life and culture as well. The ontology of our world – as individuals or groups – i.e. the entities that make up the world as perceived by us and interacted with, depend on our theories. These might be wrong and when we find out they were, the world as we thought it to be can suddenly change. Theories about the trustworthiness other people, about the freshness of food in the icebox, about the amount of gas in our car’s tank can suddenly turn out to be wrong. Observations that contradict them lead to a change in our theories. The resulting, revised theories might be wrong as well (we find out, for example, that the tank we thought to be empty actually is still filled but that there is another technical problem). But just like in science, critical and careful thinking is helpful.
To use a term I have introduced in other articles on this blog, such theories are “as-if-constructions”. As long as the theory has not been falsified (or we are operating within its scope of applicability), we can pretend as if the real world actually behaves as if the theory were true. Even if a theory is actually true, it is still an as-if-construction since we can never be absolutely certain it is representing the truth. They are fictitious, even if occasionally, they might be true. We never “have” reality; we access it only through our theories. In other articles, I have used the metaphor of a bubble for our theories. We are always inside such “as-if-bubbles”. In terms of this metaphor, the critical or skeptical attitude means that we should try our best to make those bubbles burst (even if some might survive these attempts).
However, the skeptical, critical and thorough thinking needed to sort out wrong or less likely theories cannot be taken for granted. It is itself the result of historical processes in which faulty patterns of thought have been replaced by better ones. As results of history, such patterns of thought are part of a culture. A group of people may refuse to share them. A theory for which there is no evidence (or for which there is actually counter-evidence) can be declared to be true and the methods of thought can be tinkered with so that for people holding this theory, it appears to be true and the world, as seen by them, contains entities that only exist according to that theory. The insecurity, complexity and instability of the open scientific world view is replaced by a simple and seemingly secure view.
Since such constructions can normally be undermined by evidence (or lack thereof), by critical and skeptical reasoning and application of logic, such groups will tend to become irrational to some extent and, where they gain power, they will tend to use violence against those “heretics” who do not share their views.
Such theories – ideologies – can be viewed as as-if-constructions that contain a theorem saying that they are not as-if-constructions, but the truth. Viewed from the inside, their fictitious nature (that they share with all other theories, including scientific ones) becomes obscured. You don’t see the wall of the bubble from the inside. The result is a twisted ontology. People will believe in and actually (from their point of view) observe things that, viewed from outside the ideology, clearly do not exist. Dialogue with them will often not be possible since there is no common basis for discussion. Such a common basis would be provided by accepting common standards for evidence, logic and discussion, but this is exactly what is tampered with in ideologies.
In many cases it might be impossible to get those who are caught up inside such a trap of thinking out of it. But it might be possible to protect those who have not yet stepped into those traps, by analyzing and exposing the faulty thinking of ideologies, and by generally promoting critical and skeptical thinking, careful and logical thinking, evidence-based science and a broad understanding of philosophy. Many are drawn into ideologies, especially religious ones, during their childhood and youth, and we have to gain an understanding how this is happening, how it can be influenced by education, and how countermeasures, educational or others, can be influenced on all levels of society, including politics.
The project of enlightenment is not yet finished. In fact, it cannot be finished completely. It is necessarily ongoing work in – and on – progress; and it is necessary.
(The picture is from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Soap_bubble_sky.jpg.)