Friday, August 19, 2011

"Take my word for it"

Yes, we are continuing our discussion of the "Scientific Method" - and I understand that so far I have only given what might be a disjoint collection of notes that might get worked up into something more coherent someday. I ought to reassure you: I do have some ideas on getting to the topic in a more "scientific" fashion, but I prefer to give you some jottings now, lest I get busy again, and lose the opportunity.

Indeed, I am quite aware of the central lacuna: the fact that I have not yet even stated what this "Scientific Method" is! Though you may have some ideas, and are of course enough of a scholar to understand the absic sense of these two words joined together: A "method" is something "a way (metHOD comes from Greek hodos = "way") or technique or approach to getting something done - and "scientific" obviously means that whatever is getting done is getting done in one of the branches of Science - physics, chemistry,and so on. But no, we are still not ready to define it yet.

Rather, I want to examine a different word today - that pesky word "faith" which always comes up, either directly or indirectly - and is present, either obviously or latently, in everything. As we well know, the problem that arises in treating of the matter of "faith" comes from it being a stand-in pronoun or assumed euphemism for "religion" or "worship" - something abstract and personal, and hence not useful for "getting something done" - which is what Science (and a fortiori Engineering) is all about.

But really, we need to begin to see "faith" as having a solidity like a foundation - something providing a greater agreement, not a greater quarrel - and it may help if we take one of its synonyms and consider using a word like "trust" or "confidence".

You might not like that last, since it is a sneaky way of hiding faith in a Latin disguise (fide). That's all right - then stick with "trust". Now, let us proceed.

Very much of our lives - and very much of Science and Engineering - depends upon Trust. That is, accepting the truth of a statement - whether from a person (verbally) or from a publication (in print, be it tactile or electronic) - for no other reason than we trust that source as being reliable. I have already pointed out that every one of us begins our work by relying upon a very large foundation of unquestioned truths, namely the complex system we call "language". Coupled with language is another, rather vague system - which I feel must be compared rather like the vagus nerve compares with the spinal cord - it handles some very critical matters which are not exactly language, but are not entirely separated from it either. The usual term for this system is "common sense", though I may be abusing the term. Chesterton often refers to it under that name, though sometimes he calls it "logic". It is somehow allied with the nature of "semantics" - with the basic meanings of words, not so much inthe pure grammatical sense, but in the reasoning sense. It is why we know there's something wrong (or funny) about the phrase "eating a lavender adverb" and so forth. To frame this point another way: we receive from our parents and elementary teachers our own native speaking and writing tongue. (There's a curious juxtaposition, isn't it? a "writing tongue".) But we also receive a treasury of information - some of it received perhaps from chance interactions as children, some from our own experiences (and more on that another time, since it leads to our major topic!) But it is received, and we take it as given.


It is enshrined in a famous phrase. "Take my word for it." This is what we do, simply because we are in need. Now, it would be delightful to go into how this ties into Subsidiarity - since it is precisely here that even as children we invoke that great principle, appealing to another to supply us in our needs - but that will take us too far afield. Let us remain in the idea of taking someone's word - and consider that a little more regarding our topic, that of Trust.

Now, that trust may be just as reliable in an unbeliever as in a believer - and that trust may point in either direction, never relying upon or being defeated by any particular issue of religious belief or form of worship:
I am an atheist; I have no god to call on for those who will not take my word. But I tell you in the name of every root of honour that may be left to a soldier and a man...
[GKC "The Resurrection Of Father Brown" in The Incredulity of Father Brown]
What, then, is required? As we examine the matter, it seems to me to require three attributes:

1. The words of the statement must actually communicate something meaningful, that is, by the suporting foundation of the already-accepted system of language.

The first truth involved is a truism, but a truism often as little understood as any mystery. It is that the artist is a person who communicates something. He may communicate it more or less easily and quickly; he may communicate it to a larger or smaller number of people. But it is a question of communication and not merely of what some people call expression. Or rather, strictly speaking, unless it is communication it is not expression. A signalman cannot be said to express the fact that the Scotch Express is coming from York, if he communicates the fact that it has broken down at Newcastle. A messenger cannot be said to express his sorrow at a king having been shot, if he only succeeds in communicating the news that he has been crowned. The word "expression" implies that something appears as what it really is; and that the thing that is recognised outside is the same that has been realised inside.
[GKC ILN Nov 27 1926 CW34:206-7]

2. The concept must form a unity with our understanding of Reality according to "common sense".

...the line between legitimate and illegitimate expansion of a word is so difficult to draw, that there is little to be gained by questioning it except that mere quarrel about a word that is called logomachy. There always are some confusions about a definition or exceptions to a rule. The great principle that Pigs is Pigs does not dispose entirely of the existence of pig-iron, or of cannibals calling a man a long pig. We all know the plain practical man, the sceptic in the crowd, the atheist on the soap-box, who boasts that he calls a spade a spade, and generally calls it a spyde. But even he may have to deal with the learned and sophisticated man, who will prove to him, that even in the case of the ace of spades which he planks down in playing poker, the spade is not really a spade; being derived from the Spanish espada, a sword. If once we begin to quibble and quarrel about what words ought to mean, or can be made to mean, we shall find ourselves in a mere world of words, most wearisome to those who are concerned with thoughts.
[GKC "The Hound of Heaven" in The Common Man]

3. The person giving this statement must be trustworthy. Typically there must be some reason for us to grant, at least provisionally, the dignity of listening to what the man has to say. Often, that's because we have already had experience with that speaker, and have found him reliable in the past - and as we find our trust validated, we gain an increasing respect for his accuracy. (Even when on rare instances we find he has made a mistake in his statement, we are more willing to let it pass - but that is also another topic.)

When your father told you, walking about the garden, that bees stung or that roses smelt sweet, you did not talk of taking the best out of his philosophy. When the bees stung you, you did not call it an entertaining coincidence. When the rose smelt sweet you did not say "My father is a rude, barbaric symbol, enshrining (perhaps unconsciously) the deep delicate truths that flowers smell." No: you believed your father, because you had found him to be a living fountain of facts, a thing that really knew more than you; a thing that would tell you truth to-morrow, as well as to-day. And if this was true of your father, it was even truer of your mother; at least it was true of mine...
[GKC Orthodoxy CW1:360]

Yes, I know I quoted that before, but it's well worth pondering. We do find our reliance growing as the statements of an authority are verified, again and again, by experience... and this is something we will consider more later.

Now, it is well worth pausing here and considering something - again, something unusual, which is all to easy to overlook - that is, the idea of trusting ourselves. It would be quite as dangerous to Science (and to many other things) if we somehow factor ourselves INTO the equations or experiments...

Pride consists in a man making his personality the only test, instead of making the truth the test. It is not pride to wish to do well, or even to look well, according to a real test. It is pride to think that a thing looks ill, because it does not look like something characteristic of oneself. Now in the general clouding of clear and abstract standards, there is a real tendency today for a young man (and even possibly a young woman) to fall back on that personal test, simply for lack of any trustworthy impersonal test. No standard being sufficiently secure for the self to be moulded to suit it, all standards may be moulded to suit the self. But the self as a self is a very small thing and something very like an accident. Hence arises a new kind of narrowness; which exists especially in those who boast of breadth. The sceptic feels himself too large to measure life by the largest things; and ends by measuring it by the smallest thing of all.
[GKC "If I Only Had One Sermon to Preach" in The Common Man]

Also, in our delight with machines - oh, how silly we are, using these machines to communicate, and yet we can also find reliance in them, just as we do not stop at every bridge to check its stability - and what tools might we use? How would we check those tools? Well, we need to consider another of Chesterton's warnings, from his famous detective story about the "lie detector":
"...Isn't that better evidence than a lot of gabble from witnesses: the evidence of a reliable machine? "

"You always forget," observed his companion, "that the reliable machine always has to be worked by an unreliable machine."

"Why, what do you mean?" asked the detective.

"I mean Man," said Father Brown, "the most unreliable machine I know of."
[GKC "The Mistake of the Machine" in The Wisdom of Father Brown]

Let us conclude with this brilliant observation:
Science can analyse a pork-chop, and say how much of it is phosphorus and how much is protein; but science cannot analyse any man's wish for a pork-chop, and say how much of it is hunger, how much custom, how much nervous fancy, how much a haunting love of the beautiful. The man's desire for the pork-chop remains literally as mystical and ethereal as his desire for heaven. All attempts, therefore, at a science of any human things, at a science of history, a science of folk-lore, a science of sociology, are by their nature not merely hopeless, but crazy. You can no more be certain in economic history that a man's desire for money was merely a desire for money than you can be certain in hagiology that a saint's desire for God was merely a desire for God. And this kind of vagueness in the primary phenomena of the study is an absolutely final blow to anything in the nature of a science. Men can construct a science with very few instruments, or with very plain instruments; but no one on earth could construct a science with unreliable instruments. A man might work out the whole of mathematics with a handful of pebbles, but not with a handful of clay which was always falling apart into new fragments, and falling together into new combinations. A man might measure heaven and earth with a reed, but not with a growing reed.
[GKC Heretics CW1:117]

No comments: