Just Looking

December 9, 2008 | By | Reply More

The story is famous and might be just a bit apocryphal, how Galileo turned his new telescope on the sky and offered to show many important people what he had found.  They refused to look, afraid to compromise the world view that bound them to their place and time.  Afraid, perhaps, of official censure for seeing what the authorities claimed could not be there.  What would happen if they did look and did see and found that what they saw contradicted what they had been told to expect?

A few of them might actually have refrained out of the purest of faith-based motives.  There would be no point in looking through the telescope at, say, the moon or Jupiter or Saturn.  There could only be what they had been taught to believe was there—and if it was different, then obviously there was a lie involved, either in Galileo’s device or, more deviously, in some spectacle the devil had devised to deceive.  Why play into Satan’s hands by even looking?  After all, look what happened to Lot’s Wife for “just looking.”

But “just looking” is the foundation of everything that we have come to know as science.  “Just looking” is a powerful thing.  After all, even when Galileo recanted before the Inquisition it is said that he murmurred “And yet it moves!” in reference to the idea of the sun centered, Copernican model of the solar system and the fact that, if true, the Earth would have to move.

Just Looking has opened the universe for us.  When we consider the benefits of science, born of just looking, it is amazing that anyone could find fault with the practice or the conclusions.

And yet.  And yet…

Here is a review by Dr. Paul Gross of a new book by David Berlinski, called The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions.  The review is a snarling, impatient unmasking of a piece of work which does the trick of purporting to be one thing while doing something else.  The irony, of course, is that this is the practice Berlinski accuses science of doing all the time.

What to make of this sort of assault?  Curmudgeonly rejections of authority are one of the privileges of the informed mind, a consequence of free inquiry, and the fighting stance of the skeptic.  But instead of doing a creditable job of telling us why science is in error, Berlinski (not for the first time) simply asserts.  He dismissed out of hand vast areas of science and scientific inquiry as essentially trivial and irrelevant.

He claims not to be a believer in Intelligent Design or Creationism, and yet he is a shill for such movements.  A stalking horse, if you will, someone with supposedly sound skeptical (and humanist) credentials who also doesn’t buy evolution.  His tactic, however, is very like those Important Persons who would not look through Galileo’s telescope.  He can then claim not to see any evidence to support scientific conclusions—because he evidently didn’t look.

Never mind the actual science for a few moments.  Just look at history.  At every instance where a collision occurred between a scientific model and Established Authority, the latter fell.  It turned out that Copernicus was right.  It took till the 20th Century for the Established Authority (the Church) to admit it.  The healing properties of herbs and simples, while not based so much on science (but it was a result of Just Looking) got a lot of women burned as witches even after the beginning of the so-called Enlightenment.

Just so it can’t be said that religious Established Authority is the only entity that stands in the way of science, consider the matter of Plate Tectonics, which was rejected categorically until enough evidence came to light that it had to be taken seriously.  Likewise within science, questions like Gradualism versus Punctuated Equilibrium, the Steady State Model versus an Expanding Universe, Einstein versus Quantum Mechanics…

Volumes of evidentiary writing, based on observation and investigation, detail the question of evolution.  Intermediate and transitional fossils are plentiful, and yet those who reject it out of hand always claim that there are none.  They do not Just Look.  At its simplest, if evolution were not true, breeders could not produce exotic or specialized species—if the mechanism wasn’t there, no matter how much manipulation took place, nothing would alter an established form, and if on the other hand we accept such a mechanism in the case of artificial breeding, then it is absurd to reject the possibility of it occurring in what we know as Natural Selection.  And if Natural Selection occurs, then where is the basis to reject it as the source of all plant and animal variation?  Time?  Then we have geology and, now, cosmology to tell us just how long things have been around.  To reject those factors out of hand and then fail to explain the distances involved in the fact of galaxies whose light must travel billions and billions of years begins to suggest a kind of pathology, a refusal to accept the evidence born out of reasons other than misunderstanding or viable alternatives.

Just Look.  Sometimes it is difficult to understand what is being seen, but it is often easy to see that something contradicts the received wisdom of Established Authority.

The argument is made that science is no different than religion—that, in fact, science is a religion—because both are based on faith.  Yes, science requires faith.  But it is faith in ourselves and our tools and what gets mistaken for ritual is in fact procedure—procedure for finding the truth, or at least a fact, which is sometimes the same thing.  The faith is expressed in a certainty that when we Just Look we will see something, and often it is something new and relevant.  It is faith in the fact that if we don’t look, we learn nothing.

I would, though, go so far as to suggest that religion is not based on faith, but on comfort.  Rituals explain nothing, only reify what is already believed.  Edified in the structure of received wisdom, life is encapsulated in a cozy set of forms whose chief utility is in their reassurance that there is something neverchanging that somehow confirms our essential value.  It is, in fact, static.  This is not to say there can be nothing useful in such an institution, but it does in fact do what faith suggests cannot be done—provides a concrete form in which people may invest their trust.  Once invested, as long as the forms are followed and questions kept at a minimum, where is the need for faith?

Science is far riskier—it says that if you will do the work, you will learn, and that what you will learn will change your life.  Stepping onto that path is an expression of faith.  But it is not, therefore, a religion.

Science requires that we keep our options open to the possibility that our conclusions are wrong.  The enemies of science have taken advantage of that to shove ideas and worldviews into the public forum which do not meet the criteria of science, and yet science is made out to be intransigent and close-minded if it rejects these ideas.  This is an inherently fraudulent act, a curious tactic for people who claim dedication to truth.

Berlinski and his sort seem to suggest that we should not waste our time looking at what he claims is a mirage, baseless and empty.  His supporters would love that.  Think of all the problems that could solved if people would just stop looking.

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Category: American Culture, Censorship, Communication, Culture, Current Events, Education, Evolution, History, ignorance, Noteworthy, Psychology Cognition, Religion, Science, snake oil

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

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