The burden of thinking

Let me speak for gray. Not black or white. Good or evil. Truth or falsity. Yes or no. Let me speak for maybe. Sort of. More or less. I think so. 

I am reluctant to speak for gray for fear of being considered wishy-washy. Indecisive. Unprincipled. But lately it seems as if we are surrounded on every side by zealots, and it’s not a pretty sight.

We are surrounded by people who are so certain of their Truth that they are willing to strap bombs to their chests and walk into crowded pizza parlors. Or fly airplanes into towers. Or bomb abortion clinics. Or subvert American principles of civil liberties to fight those who have no principles of civil liberty.

There’s an ugly stridency in the air, too many people who are certain God is on their side. Too much certainty with a capital C.

So why does the world look gray to me? After all, I was raised in a tradition of Absolute Truth. I was taught that infidels will burn in hell, at least those guilty of “culpable ignorance.” “Armies of youth flying standards of Truth,” we sang.

But I was studying science, too, and the history and philosophy of science. I discovered truth with a lower-case t. Evolving truth. I encountered people who held their most cherished beliefs to the refining fire of experience, and who changed their minds when their tentative truths failed the test.


When a group of Englishmen established the first modern scientific society in the 17th century, they took as their motto, “Take no one’s word.” They believed the only reliable guide to truth was the evidence of the senses. And even the senses can be deceiving. Which is why they embraced the experimental method. Reproducibility. Observations that can be repeated by anyone, and that always give the same result.

Many people think of science as a body of knowledge — the germ theory of disease, evolution by natural selection, Newton’s laws of motion, that sort of thing. Well, yes, it is. But these things are tentatively held, with varying degrees of certainty. More fundamentally, science is a way of thinking. A way that rejects absolutes.

Of course, one can’t blow hither and yon on a sea of uncertainty. To be useful, any system of knowledge must be confident of itself. To do scientific work at all, one must start with firm convictions. But every good scientist must be radically open to marginal change, and marginally open to radical change.

Black and white is easy. It relieves us of the burden of thinking, of learning, of experiencing the other. Gray is more difficult — but it’s the planet’s best hope for a civilized future.

   by Chet Raymo, blog.sciencemusings.com

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