The Skeptical Scientific Mind-Set in the Spectrum of Belief: It?s about models of ?reality? ? and the unavoidable incompleteness of evidence, for ? or against ? any model or fact.
This essay examines topics that relate to the origins of beliefs, in general ? and particularly, to ?belief-in? the sciences ? and how beliefs impact our ability to cope with real-world problems:
? Introspection about personal experiences of the external world, using the ?images? created by our sense organs (especially our vision) should convince us that we are usually aware of a great more detail than our finite vocabularies of words and symbols equip us to manage. So all models (stories/speculations/hypotheses/theories/laws) that we construct to communicate meaning about those experiences must be caricatures of a richer and more complex private set of conscious and unconscious images and impressions. As a result, at best, we can only build stripped-down, verbal/symbolic sketches about the world. These can hardly be expected to be complete models of absolute and (final?) ?truth?.
? Communication between individuals and groups likely developed as a means to, on average, increase the quality of life (the probability of survival, safety, convenience and comfort) compared to ?going it alone?. For each of the communicating partners, the meanings of those communications had to be believed to be the ?same? to try to maximize the fulfillment of such intentions. Therefore, the voiced-words/symbols/codes, and the fundamental rules for their use, needed to be arbitrarily agreed upon to ?assure? identical intended meanings. This is exactly the function of axiomatic definitions and rules at the roots of model building for languages, for mathematics and for logic. The qualifications and limitations that apply to languages, math and logic must be very similar to those for building models for all systems of belief (ideologies, religions and science). Deductive reasoning and inductive reasoning are the tools used to examine the consequences of the axiomatics. How axiomatics and reason might fail to lead us to ?truth' and certainty about models therefore also requires understanding of inherent limitations imposed on both deductive and inductive reasoning.
? Sciences differ from ideologies, from most mathematics and from religions. The latter require undiluted, absolute faith/belief in the ?truth? of their axiomatics. However, science accepts (also axiomatically) that the degree-of-belief/confidence-in its models can never be absolute. The degree-of-belief is measured by how strongly pertinent, empirical evidence ? developed through repeated observation and ?testing?, and always limited by uncertainties of inductive reasoning, confirm the predictions/projections of the models.
Such degrees-of-belief are analogue (expressed quantitatively, as ?different shades of grey?) rather than digital [expressed as black and white (false or true)]. Scientific models of observable phenomena (objects and processes), provide simpler and more reliable explanations than those of non-scientific disciplines and ideologies. Ockham?s Razor ? the dictum to choose the simplest explanation, all other things being equal ? therefore generally recommends placing scientific models ahead of ideologic models of observable phenomena.
These differences are sources of science?s great potential to self-correct ? and with ever increasing confidence ? to incrementally (though often sporadically) improve quality of life.
In teaching, and in the general valuation of science, these topics, and their contributions to improving the quality of life, are increasingly neglected. They are explored to better clarify how science fits into the wide spectrum of beliefs ? (and perhaps help reverse this disturbing trend ;-)