Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Burden of Empirical Science in the Modern World

Medieval monk writing on a book tablet

Science may be today what religion used to be in the Middle Ages. Back then, religion was a constant guide of life that one followed closely, and one literally hung on each and every word of the clergy. Any questions about existence, God or on how to live life were addressed to those who were supposedly “in the know.”

Nowadays, a group of scientists has the last word in these matters, since they have usurped that power and privilege. When it comes to questions of health, life, even sanity, we turn to science. Science decides what is truth, what is falsehood, what is reality and what are phantoms, what is sanity and what is insanity. A grave case of mental illness used to be considered a possession of the devil, while today it is a malfunction of the brain to be treated with pills and medication.

Science has the upper hand today because it produces results. Science has helped not only to interpret nature, but also to control and manipulate it. It has given us technology which enables us to do feats that the medieval minds could not even dream of. Medicine has managed to cure and eradicate various deadly diseases.

When it comes to serious illnesses most people in the modern day of age would prefer medical procedures over prayer. Of course, I do not doubt the powers of prayer, but medicine, despite its failings and shortcomings would be a much surer bet; ideally both will be practiced because one should not underestimate the power of faith and belief, as psychologists often tell us.

Yet despite it all, science has struggled over the centuries. Some philosophers have questioned its validity. Although reason and logic have prevailed, there is one undeniable and accepted fact about science: its focus on empiricism. Why do or should we trust our senses so much? Scholasticism was based on the concept that one's senses deceive and are hence unreliable and that one should use logic only to achieve certainty. They would disagree with our common-sense notion of “seeing is believing” and change it to “seeing is deceiving.”

And others would say that we will never know for sure that the objects out there actually exist. Descartes believed that everything can be doubted with the exception of one's own self. Cogito ergo sum: I think, therefore I am. I can doubt and for me to be able to doubt there needs to be a distinct “I” to doubt things. Therefore, I must exist. But does this table in front of me or the computer I am working on really exist? Can it not be simply a figment of my imagination, an elaborate well-devised hoax designed to deceive me?

These types of ideas are not so much “bogus” with the advent of quantum physics. If all is just made up of atoms that are moving fast, while “hard” and “soft” are just sense impressions we receive that have no basis in reality, then how can we be absolutely certain that it is really real?

We perceive certain waves as color and sound but do these two exist independently, on their own? If you are colorblind, the world exists of a combination and confusion between green and red. Are you wrong and is the rest of the world right? Or could it be the other way around? Surely, it would be unscientific to claim that truth is what the majority believes it to be, right?

It may lead us to the sceptics who claim that nothing can ever be known with certainty. Even cause and effect may just happen to be coincidence and not a reliable law. Our brain may be wired to see events in a certain way, while it may not be able to see many other events. Ghosts may be perceived by some and not by others. Our sight may not be sensitive enough for such perceptions, yet they may still exist. A blind person could be able to “see” more than we do. A medieval monk may have been right, and it is us who are on the wrong track now.

The problem is that science with empirical evidence cannot fully explain truths. It can show and demonstrate what is true under certain circumstances in a certain environment. Science has been able to reproduce results; it can predict what will happen in a given situation, yet, for better or worse, it lacks the absolutes of religion and is focused on the particulars.

From there we derive theories but theories are not necessarily true. Evolution theory for the time being is one among many until perhaps we may find another, a better explanation. We definitely have more knowledge, but it seems that it is a gamble. We can say that the empirical world of facts is the real deal and dismiss all religion and spirituality as cheap diversion or mere speculation and wishful thinking. Or we may have been fooled all this time and it is the other way around; then we have been blinded by a world of appearances and make believe and are living in Plato's dimly-lit Cave.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

You are what you Shop: How Clothes and Books reflect Personal Attitudes

Cover of Edmond Rostand's play "Cyrano de Bergerac"
In a materialistic consumer world, your shopping defines who you are. The style or brand names you choose to wear, your clothes, shoes and accessories give substantial clues about what kind of person you are, what attitudes you cherish.

A business-person could be spotted from miles away, while goths have their own way of setting themselves equally apart from the rest of society; all this time, well-groomed artists and musicians are hard to find since that would, more often than not, contradict the image we associate with them.

Each of us is instantly communicating with others simply and non-verbally with our appearance. Of course, some of us -me- are not that aware of what kind of messages we give off since we have mostly undervalued and under-appreciated the force and pull of fashion. But experience has taught us -me again- that you cannot go to a job interview with a Labatt (beer label) shirt and expect to get lucky.

Although I am not a fond member of the consumer society, I can see how it can be of importance for certain groups of people. Many thrive on their style; it's “do or die” for them. They need to make a good impression and would like to get your attention on the get-go. For them there is a gaping world of difference between “brand” and “no brand.” It becomes an existential matter of “to be” or “not to be.”

And your shopping habits do reflect who you are. For me, it is not so much about clothes, but books. When I see a cherished book or philosopher in the hands of a commuter, I immediately label the person and feel a strange affinity toward them even though I have never met them before. They are then either beatniks, pessimists, neurotics, romantics, existentialists in my mind based solely on the impression of their books. I do not necessarily judge the book by its cover, but the person by their books.