Monday, October 17, 2011

Not to scare away further comments, but...

According to the schedule, today I'm supposed to write about St. Thomas Aquinas. But according to the schedule, I was supposed to post something last Thursday. Let's just say I haven't been well taken with schedules lately, and this week I'm going to shirk Aquinas and instead respond to Shafik's long comment to last Monday's post.

Those of you who haven't figured out you can save time by skipping these Monday philosophy & religion posts will remember last week's post was about how absolutism and relativism both make no sense as judged by the principles of the other. The post garnered a few comments, which makes it a successful one as measured by my validation-seeking blogging mindset, and one of those posts—Shafik's—included eight question marks, which makes it a good comment as measured by my opinion that questions are generally more interesting than answers. Shafik invited me to speculate further about the mysteries of the universe, and I'm not one to resist making non-falsifiable claims when asked. So here's my response to Shafik's comment.

* * *

Does Relativism make any sense if no consciousness is involved?

If a universe falls in a forest and no one is around, is the universe still sound? My guess is consciousness has nothing to do with relativism vs absolutism. While it's hard to imagine relativism being meaningful without a sentient entity around to use it, the same goes for absolutism, too. What does meaningful mean when no one is around to ascribe meaning? As for whether the secrets of the universe are any different only because the universe now contains small pockets of complexity capable of referencing some of those secrets—I'm skeptical.

Talk about a nature of things invites a slew of question-begging. What nature? How do you know? How are you sure? How are you sure about being sure? And so on. I've seen nothing further down those holes but faith and mysticism, and everyone's mileage varies with those. Even scientism, which is the belief that science is making progress, is merely calling the other side of the same absolutist coin. Only after starting with some form of absolutism do any of these modes of thought make any sense.

Care must be taken, however, to prevent Relativism from becoming a destructive tool against well-backed and strongly justified facts and "truths" about the universe.

Relativism and absolutism both can be taken in, muddied, and used to project rainbows and shadows onto the universe one sees. These days relativism is most closely associated with secularism, which is the socio-political equilibrium you get when you put together millions of materially wealthy, differently thinking people. It's also the system that affords people the freedom to sit at home with their laptops and trash secularism on their blogs, but that's another matter.

When I hear someone say, People ought to do X, I like to play a game with myself and speculate as to whether people alive 500 years from now will be more likely to agree or to disagree with the statement. It's my guess that little of the knowledge and material wealth we value highly now will be much valued by people then, and meanwhile they'll care a great deal about many things we value little now. I for one draw comfort from this transience, just as I draw comfort from a universe that's uncaring. It really takes the pressure off.

…Godel's theories…

I agree.

What about the strange and esoteric world of Quantum physics?

While you have to give up the old-fashioned notion of absolutes to make any sense of quantum physics, many people argue that quantum physics is merely pressing forward to an ever more accurate model of the universe—i.e., scientism and its absolutism deja vu. But quantum physics, computation theory, non-Euclidean geometry, and many other recent successes requiring relativistic thinking suggest there's merit to learning how to use relativism as a tool.

Or do they? Actually—and this is where I disagree with most atheists—I'm not at all convinced that building a more accurate model of the universe, whatever that means, is of much help to most people. In fact, I strongly suspect self-delusion is one of mankind's greatest survival skills. Some people need a deadline and some pressure to get things done. Speaking of deadlines, let's see if I can get around to that Thursday post…


Shafik said...

Thanks for the reply Craig.

One part of your post caught my attention though:

"These days relativism is most closely associated with secularism"

Expand on this a little further. I can see the situation being reversed: absolutism being associated with secularism, but perhaps that's because both secularism and absolutism make sense to me.

Bobby and the Presidents said...

"I strongly suspect self-delusion is one of mankind's greatest survival skills." -- JEC

I agree with this statement fully, therefore it is a great me at least.

Craig M. Brandenburg said...

Shafik— Well, you're right. In practice, people are absolutists; it's what gets us out of bed in the morning. I'll have more to say about secularism in the future, though for me secularism is more about the economy and thus the ecosystem than it is about religion.

Bobby et al.— Thanks, but we're only fooling ourselves.