Good Books and Pervasive Ideas

I watched Michael Mosley’s BBC Story Of Science (Episode 5) yesterday (get it while you can).

There were two messages I took from the programme, mainly because of the debates I’ve been having over on the blogs of Lesley and Alan. Those messages are:

  • The fallibility of the good books

  • The power and pervasiveness of science

Good/Bad Books

The story starts with Galen, the Roman physician and philosopher who mad remarkable progress in understanding the human body, its structure and it’s processes. He created what became the ‘good book’ of anatomy and physiology. This work was revered and studied for over a thousand years and became the ‘Bible’ of medicine.

The analogy with the Bible I want to draw out is the conviction with which its anatomy was held to be a true representation of the human body. The flaw lay in the fact that it was based on animal dissections. So despite it’s value it contained many inaccuracies that were propagated from teacher to student for centuries. But because of the authority of Galen’s book, and that of the teachers, the mistakes were believed to be truths.

Galen wasn’t challenged and further significant progress wasn’t made until Andreas Vesalius at University of Padua. Because the university wasn’t affiliated with the church the dissections of the human body, of criminals, as opposed to animal, at last began to give up its detailed secrets. Another break with tradition was that Vesalius got stuck in and found out for himself – where traditionally the teacher would have guided the demonstrator to do the dissecting by reading from Galen, describing, prescribing, what would be found, rather than what was found by the demonstrator, and all the students would nod and agree, they would bow to the authorities of the teacher and Galen’s good book.

Only when traditional boundaries and authorities were challenged would the good book’s flaws be exposed, and only when reality was dissected was the truth discovered. This should be a lesson for the religious. But sadly, for many, the old authority still rules. Even for the liberal Christian the Bible holds sway and influences their interpretations of what are personal experiences. That’s why there is no reasonable response to the charge that one good book, the Bible, is no better, no more true, that any other good book, such as the Quran. It’s all a matter of faith.

The Pervasive View of Science

The other message from the programme is one I’ve been trying to express in several ways. That is that science is not a completely different way of looking at the world.

It isn’t a new World View against which traditional Holy views must be rallied. It’s the same view we’ve always had. Science is, if anything, just a process of looking at the world more rigorously, in more detail and with finer precision, and with greater reliability.

Science does no more than account for and compensate for our own limitations, which it does through its methods for devising experiments and observational techniques, which are repeated by different people at different times in different places to rule out any local or biased influences, using instruments that extend the range of our natural senses.

This isn’t a magic against which we should be fighting. It isn’t telling us anything that is unbelievable. In fact quite the opposite, because it raises our confidence that what it’s telling us is true, increasing our trust in what it is showing us. We trust science every time we go under the surgeon’s knife and the anaesthetist gases; every time we take a trip in a plane; every time we type a blog post; every time we use a phone. We know science is the best use of the only tools we have of accessing knowledge: our reason and senses.

There is no other World View to be had that isn’t make-believe. If we can’t reason about it and sense it then we don’t know much about it – effectively nothing at all. If we can’t apply science to it, from our basic reason and senses to any of the specific methods that make up the scientific method, then what can we know about it? We have nothing else! Everything else that we make up just in our minds is fantasy. Our ideas, concepts, our nightmares, dreams, our monsters, goblins, unicorns, witches and gods – they are all fantasy; unless we can back them up, corroborate them, with our reason and senses. And the more strange our ideas the more confirmation we need before we should believe them.

If you believe you communicate with God; if there is an inner experience that is so convincing that you really believe it, if you have faith in it, I can’t offer more than say that the human brain sees and hears plenty of things that aren’t there, and we all know that this is the case. If you can’t review these examples and see that this might apply to you in some way, then what more can I do? If you think the vague paradoxical nonsensical irrational mystique of religious language is offering you an explanation for what you can’t otherwise demonstrate to be true, if you are prepared to be bamboozled into your faith, then I think you’re stuck with that.

Only the sceptical application of our reason and senses, most rigorously at work in science, will be able to set you free from the strangle hold of tradition. This isn’t some other way of knowing; there is no other way of knowing.

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