Ghosts and the art of bullshit maintenance July 30, 2010Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Science.
Tags: Richard Dawkins, Robert Pirsig
In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig presents a view of science that I fear many people will be sympathetic to:
After a while [Chris] says, “Do you believe in ghosts?”
“No,” I say.
“Because they are un-sci-en-ti-fic.”
The way I say this makes John smile. “They contain no matter,” I continue, “and have no energy and therefore, according to the laws of science, do not exist except in people’s minds.”
The whiskey, the fatigue and the wind in the trees start mixing in my mind. “Of course,” I add, “the laws of science contain no matter and have no energy either and therefore do not exist except in people’s minds. It’s best to be completely scientific about the whole thing and refuse to believe in either ghosts or the laws of science. That way you’re safe. That doesn’t leave you very much to believe in, but that’s scientific too.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Chris says.
“I’m being kind of facetious.”
Chris gets frustrated when I talk like this, but I don’t think it hurts him.
“One of the kids at YMCA camp says he believes in ghosts.”
“He was just spoofing you.”
“No, he wasn’t. He said that when people haven’t been buried right, their ghosts come back to haunt people. He really believes in that.”
“He was just spoofing you,” I repeat.
“What’s his name?” Sylvia says.
“Tom White Bear.”
John and I exchange looks, suddenly recognizing the same thing.
“Ohhh, Indian!” he says.
I laugh. “I guess I’m going to have to take that back a little,” I say. “I was thinking of European ghosts.”
“What’s the difference?”
John roars with laughter. “He’s got you,” he says.
I think a little and say, “Well, Indians sometimes have a different way of looking at things, which I’m not saying is completely wrong. Science isn’t part of the Indian tradition.”
“Tom White Bear said his mother and dad told him not to believe all that stuff. But he said his grandmother whispered it was true anyway, so he believes it.”
He looks at me pleadingly. He really does want to know things sometimes. Being facetious is not being a very good father. “Sure,” I say, reversing myself, “I believe in ghosts too.”
Now John and Sylvia look at me peculiarly. I see I’m not going to get out of this one easily and brace myself for a long explanation.
“It’s completely natural,” I say, “to think of Europeans who believed in ghosts or Indians who believed in ghosts as ignorant. The scientific point of view has wiped out every other view to a point where they all seem primitive, so that if a person today talks about ghosts or spirits he is considered ignorant or maybe nutty. It’s just all but completely impossible to imagine a world where ghosts can actually exist.”
John nods affirmatively and I continue.
“My own opinion is that the intellect of modern man isn’t that superior. IQs aren’t that much different. Those Indians and medieval men were just as intelligent as we are, but the context in which they thought was completely different. Within that context of thought, ghosts and spirits are quite as real as atoms, particles, photons and quants are to a modern man. In that sense I believe in ghosts. Modern man has his ghosts and spirits too, you know.”
“Oh, the laws of physics and of logic — the number system — the principle of algebraic substitution. These are ghosts. We just believe in them so thoroughly they seem real.”
“They seem real to me,” John says.
“I don’t get it,” says Chris.
So I go on. “For example, it seems completely natural to presume that gravitation and the law of gravitation existed before Isaac Newton. It would sound nutty to think that until the seventeenth century there was no gravity.”
“So when did this law start? Has it always existed?”
John is frowning, wondering what I am getting at.
“What I’m driving at,” I say, “is the notion that before the beginning of the earth, before the sun and the stars were formed, before the primal generation of anything, the law of gravity existed.”
“Sitting there, having no mass of its own, no energy of its own, not in anyone’s mind because there wasn’t anyone, not in space because there was no space either, not anywhere…this law of gravity still existed?”
Now John seems not so sure.
“If that law of gravity existed,” I say, “I honestly don’t know what a thing has to do to be nonexistent. It seems to me that law of gravity has passed every test of nonexistence there is. You cannot think of a single attribute of nonexistence that that law of gravity didn’t have. Or a single scientific attribute of existence it did have. And yet it is still ‘common sense’ to believe that it existed.”
John says, “I guess I’d have to think about it.”
“Well, I predict that if you think about it long enough you will find yourself going round and round and round and round until you finally reach only one possible, rational, intelligent conclusion. The law of gravity and gravity itself did not exist before Isaac Newton. No other conclusion makes sense.
“And what that means,” I say before he can interrupt, “and what that means is that that law of gravity exists nowhere except in people’s heads! It’s a ghost! We are all of us very arrogant and conceited about running down other people’s ghosts but just as ignorant and barbaric and superstitious about our own.”
“Why does everybody believe in the law of gravity then?”
“Mass hypnosis. In a very orthodox form known as ‘education.'” […]
They are just looking at me so I continue: “Laws of nature are human inventions, like ghosts. Laws of logic, of mathematics are also human inventions, like ghosts. The whole blessed thing is a human invention, including the idea that it isn’t a human invention. The world has no existence whatsoever outside the human imagination. It’s all a ghost, and in antiquity was so recognized as a ghost, the whole blessed world we live in. It’s run by ghosts. We see what we see because these ghosts show it to us, ghosts of Moses and Christ and the Buddha, and Plato, and Descartes, and Rousseau and Jefferson and Lincoln, on and on and on. Isaac Newton is a very good ghost. One of the best. Your common sense is nothing more than the voices of thousands and thousands of these ghosts from the past. Ghosts and more ghosts. Ghosts trying to find their place among the living.”
That may sound profound, but in fact it is profoundly stupid. I’m sorry to be the killjoy rationalist who insists on shaking people out of their fuzzy warm postmodern stupor, but it’s important to, you know, stay in touch with reality. Natural laws (like gravity) are not objects that exist out in space like stars and planets; they are generalizations that describe how our world works. The important thing to remember is that the universe works however it works, whether any people understand it or not. Science is merely our best effort to reach such an understanding – and it turns out that you get better results by methodically testing your hypotheses against reality to see which theory best explains the evidence, rather than just making up stuff that sounds cool or makes you feel good.
Of course, it’s possible to think you understand how the world works, and be mistaken. For instance, we know now that Newton’s laws of gravitation are wrong: they are good approximations for how things work in certain special cases, but they do not apply more generally. However, Newton’s laws still predict the movement of planets a whole lot better than the prophecies of shamans, just as antibiotics are a whole lot better at curing infection than voodoo incantations. As Richard Dawkins puts it:
Show me a cultural relativist at 30,000 feet and I’ll show you a hypocrite. . . If you are flying to an international congress of anthropologists or literary critics, the reason you will probably get there – the reason you don’t plummet into a ploughed field – is that a lot of Western scientifically trained engineers have got their sums right.
Humans can believe any number of things and invent any number of laws; but only some of those beliefs are justified by evidence, and only some of those laws really provide an accurate description of the world we live in.