The core of science is not the mathematical model; it's intellectual honesty. It is a willingness to have our certainties about the world constrained by good evidence and good argument.
Scott Adams has a post up today on his Dilbert Blog asking what qualifies as a mental problem. The question arises, evidently, from a vigorous hurling of shit in the comment section of one of his recent posts. His standard practice is to say something interesting or provocative and then let the comments fly. Myself, I can't imagine anything less gratifying than having to read three or four hundred comments from the unfiltered internet. (It's not sour grapes: I'd love to have 300 comments, but I know they won't but a few of them be thoughtful comments; the rest is just stupid noise.)
This past week or so I was commenting on several atheism-related posts on Cyberkitten's blog, and there began the usual slide which, left unchecked, would have soon found us in a fit of junior-high name calling. Jeffy (very rightly) emailed me to gently inquire, in effect, what possible outcome I was expecting from this interaction. He himself was quite tempted to respond to the other commenter, to a pretty forceful statement of a quite unsupportable argument. But he was able to realize that no argument, no matter how logical or air-tight, could possibly change the commenter's mind. Indeed, the whole motivation of the commenter was to protect and defend their faith. In this case, with this commenter, the very discussion was absolutely pointless.
He's 100% correct, I know. I can see this quite clearly when it's laid before me. But I guess I have enough stupid debater in me that it's still almost impossible not to want to make an answer to these comments, to try and show this person where their logical errors lie. I've seen a zillion times people descend into name-calling and silly invective, the emotional lashing-out in a desperate bid for supremacy--or even to just have the last word. It's a colossal waste of time: if reason was not used to reach one's conclusions--and if reason is pointedly not needed to retain one's beliefs; indeed, if reason is looked upon as insidious and harmful!--then no reason will change that person's mind.
If I think about these things for very long, I inevitably find myself down at the bedrock of words and language and meaning. I want to believe that "truth" is an unambiguous word, that "evidence" and "proof" are not malleable terms. Yet both sides of any debate on religion use these words as properly in their domain. Can this be correct? I'm not really asking seriously, I guess. I know that what a religious person calls a "truth" does not pass muster in a scientific way, that truth is often confused with hope, evidence with desire. This is a corruption of these words, a misuse if the words are to retain their most basic meaning. A scientist rarely uses these terms, since science deals in provisional knowledge. While there ARE truths, more often there are supported, provisional conclusions. The scientist learns to be content with this.
When I listen to a person making religious arguments, I know that there is an aspect of debate going on, an element of semantic skill and maneuvering about the gray areas of language. Discussion is rarely conducted in a level way with an eye on simple logic and on examination and weighing of evidence. (This differs fundamentally from a discussion between science folks.) Rather, we necessarily enter the realm of opinion and advocacy; there is a sense of strategy and cunning, of tactics being employed toward some kind of victory. Big, unknowable things are assumed and the ball is run from there. There is an overwhelming, foundational sense of people wanting to preserve and protect what they believe and think. On the unmoderated forums of the internet, you find this stance on both sides, which is exactly what makes it so pointless. But the whole thing is pointless if either side is mired down in this way. Emotional involvement and attachment is something unavoidably human, and the great value of the scientific method is that it divorces our knowledge of our world from our desires and needs. WANTING a thing to be true is an impediment to our LEARNING what IS, in fact, true.
This should be Axiom No. 1