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The problem of dogma

Diagram of the famous proof of the Pythagorean theorem
Diagram of the famous proof of the Pythagorean theorem
Steve Switzer

People of religious persuasion often judge others by what they do themselves, and nowhere is this more evident then when we talk about "dogma" i.e. the firmly declared statement or statements of belief, that are infallible, unshakable and eternal. They go so far as to state that science is a "dogma" and that beliefs based on science are based on faith.

Am I missing something here? Science based on faith? Oh yes, scientists have faith in observation and examining results. Scientists have faith in the deductive power of reasoning to arrive at solutions and conclusions. Scientists have faith in intellect and the idea that the laws of nature and the universe are consistent and that they can be understood. These are the assumptions that scientists have without which there could be no science. Yes, they are, more or less, assumptions, taken on faith. You cannot absolutely prove these are true. There is no way to know for sure that your senses and the senses of others are reliable. No one can be one hundred percent certain that our intellects and reasoning is absolutely correct. Can we be absolutely sure that the laws of the universe are absolutely consistent? Not absolutely. Scientists think they are, but there is always some nagging doubt. These things are accepted by faith.

But beyond that, scientists require evidence. Yes, they need proof that something is true. Someone's word is not good enough. Statements from authority are not good enough. A scientist has faith in observation and reasoning, that is why the scientist requires proof. The scientist knows that people can and often do lie. They can be mistaken. Even observations need to be documented and then double checked and triple checked, checked and observed and reexamined by different people to see if they make the same observations and get the same results. Even our senses can sometimes be misled, but if you are persistent and you gain a collection of evidence and observations, you can be pretty sure that what deductions you have are the truth, or at least something pretty close to it.

That's how science works, day to day. A little bit at a time, you gain information. You try to figure out what you are observing and you try to make deductions about it. It's not easy; it takes work. You actually have to think things through. You are wrong most of the time. You make guesses and then more observations, and they usually don't pan out. You have to think of all possible criticisms of your idea. Think of alternative explanations of what you are seeing. It is hard work.

If you ever hang around scientists or people who are familiar with the discipline of science, they rarely state things in terms of absolutes. Scientists usually use expressions like, "It appears to be," "based on available evidence...", "it seems to be", "it is probable/improbable", "it is likely/unlikely","this leads to the conclusion of..." and where there is more certainty of a theory or a body of knowledge, scientists are still guarded, they say things like, "it is apparent based on observed facts", "the evidence strongly suggests", "this proves that...", "it is highly likely/unlikely","it appears certain...", "there is little doubt", "has been proved beyond reasonable doubt..." and only in the mathematical sciences or in the case of something which is so well proved that scientists will say, "it is without doubt", "it is certain", "it is incontrovertible", such as the fact of the spherical nature of Earth, or that the earth rotates on its axis, or that the circumference of a circle is equal to twice the radius of the circle times the value pi, or that pi is approximately equal to 3.141592...or that is an irrational number.

Mathematics is the only science that approaches anything like dogma, where its teachings are eternal, absolutely certain, and infallible. When adding two positive integers within the real number system, 1+1 always equals 2, never anything else. But even in the absolute world of mathematics, mathematicians always are probing and even questioning mathematical ideas. Yes, one plus one may equal two in real number integers, but are there mathematical entities in which one plus one does not equal two? Vector algebra is one such case where 1+1 does not equal 2 but in fact, the square root of 2. Is it always true that parallel lines never converge? In simple Euclidean geometry, that is true, but in the geometry of curved spaces, non Euclidean geometries, that is often false. And although mathematics is the closest to dogma in science, even theorems and mathematical ideas have to be rigorously proved in a series of logical steps. It is a logical requirement of mathematics.

The Pythagorean Theorem is one of the most well known theorems, known to practically every schoolboy and schoolgirl. It simply states that in a right triangle i.e. a triangle in which one of the angles is 90 degrees, (in plane Euclidean geometry) the length of the longest side of the triangle is equal in value to the square root of the sum of the squares of the two remaining sides. Put out in formula, let a and b be the two remaining sides and c be the length of the longest side of the right triangle, the formula reads c = sqrt( a^2 + b^2). The caret ^ representing raising a and b to the second power, sqrt being the square root. There have been many proofs advanced for this theorem since Pythagoras formulated it. (The theorem had been known for centuries by the ancient Babylonians and possibly the ancient Egyptians, but Pythagoras was the first to state it in formal terms.) But the simplest and most elegant proof of the theorem came from an Arab mathematician, in the form of a simple diagram with a single word under it. BEHOLD!

Mathematics is the only dogmatic science with absolute truth, but all other sciences can be wrong. It is that humility that sets science apart from the fundamentalist dogmas of our organized religions. Science recognizes that human beings are fallible and that they don't have all the answers. Truth may be out there, but science knows only some of it. Science can only approach an approximation of truth. Science can only have limited certainty.

Fundamentalist Christianity and Islam are the worst offenders in proclaiming dogmas. They aren't the only ones, but they are the worst of the lot. They contend, that against science, they have the absolute truth, based on the teaching of their holy books. In the case of Christianity, the Bible, and in the case of Islam, the Quran and Hadiths. Fundamentalist religions can never accept that they can be wrong. They after all, have the absolute truth, handed down by God himself, and God can never be wrong. And yet, we can look around at the world where religion reigns and see the horrible devastation that has been wrought by the Word of God. People are brutally murdering each other in jihad in the name of Allah. Women are being genitally mutilated because Allah demands it. Women are forced to wear restrictive and concealing clothing because Allah says it. Trials and horrible tortures and punishments, and death sentences have been meted out in inquisition and sharia courts on the grounds of witchcraft, heresy and apostasy. Babies are denied medical treatment, because the faithful are waiting for a miracle. And worse yet, they try to force beliefs on people and punish those who criticize the beliefs.

And religionists almost always talk in absolutes and certainties, as if there is no chance they can be wrong. They say, “God says”, “It is the truth”, “This is the Word of God”, “We know”, “Our faith is sure...”, “We are certain”, “This is the way it is”. Human beings like absolutes and certainties; it gives people confidence, but reality is that we are often not certain and can’t be certain, no matter how we pretend we are.

Of course, religion is not the only source of dogma. Nazism, Fascism, and Communism were political dogmas that were just as dangerous and toxic as religious ones and they too had devastating results. But, at least secular dogmas when they are seen to be mistaken, they can be abandoned, as in the case of Nazism, Fascism, and Communism because they at least in some part were based on logic and reason -- albeit faulty reasoning. But what makes religious dogma so devastating, is that no amount of reason or logic is convincing to the faithful. They are totally convinced they have the Word of God and no amount of reason can dissuade them. The Bible and Quran and Hadiths have been disproved so many times in so many ways. All these holy books have been subjected to scrutiny and found to be wanting. The Bible and Quran clearly state the world to be flat, for example. Yet apologists keep trying to explain their holy books. All the holy books have inconsistencies with modern science and even inconsistencies with themselves, scientific, logical and moral. But that will not dissuade the die hard believer! They do all kinds of mental gymnastics to try to justify their holy books, from simply disbelieving and ignoring science altogether, to adopting only the science that suits their beliefs and ignoring the rest.

Creationists in both the Christian and Islamic camps say that the theory of evolution, key to much of the biological understanding of the world and universe is a pile of rubbish and is a dogma in the scientific community. But is it really a dogma? If it turns out that the theory of evolution is wrong, the scientists, however reluctantly, will eventually admit it, and change their views. Science demands it. Science requires solid proof for everything. Yes, scientists are human, they do sometimes cling to theories, but in the end, if a theory is proven false, it will eventually be discarded. That's the way science works.

What could possibly disprove evolution? Well, if today or tomorrow, scientists should come upon human bones found with dinosaur bones, and the bones are mangled in such a way as to suggest that the poor human specimen was a dinosaur's lunch, evolution would be in serious trouble. Scientists would have to explain how a human fossil remains were found in a Cretaceous fossil bed with a T. Rex or Velociraptor. Anatomically modern humans did not appear until about 200,000 years ago and dinosaurs died out about 60 million years ago, so they could not have coexisted. But if fossil bones of an anatomically modern human, or even an early hominid such as Australopithecus afarensis were found mangled with a skeleton of a Velociraptor, then that would present a problem for evolution. If you rule out improbable time travel, what is left? Maybe the current understanding of how life developed on Earth is wrong. Even if evolution is correct, it might need major revision. But if modern humans are found in Cretaceous strata, especially more than one specimen, and they are dated to the late Cretaceous about 65 million years ago or so, long before their ancestors such as A. afarensis, or Homo Habilis, were found in Pliocene fossil beds, that would present a serious problem for evolution. How could modern humans appear in the fossil record before their supposed ancestors appeared in later fossil periods?

Keep in mind though, that if evolution were to be disproved, it would have to be disproved by a solid and substantial body of evidence. The skeletons would have to be meticulously dated. Alternative explanations of how the skeletons got there would have to be ruled out. You would have to explain the methodology of how you conclude that the skeletons really are from the Cretaceous or perhaps that the scientific method of dating is wrong. Any alternative hypothesis would have to be methodically proven step by step, giving solid and hard evidence for each step, to lead to an incontrovertible chain of evidence that would lead to a sound conclusion. You would have to explain and rebut criticisms of your alternative hypothesis and show through solid evidence that it is the best hypothesis to fit the observed facts. That is how scientists do it.

Creationists have tried to disprove evolution this way, suggesting that modern tools have been found in Cretaceous fossil beds, and that modern human foot prints have been found walking beside dinosaur foot prints. Thus far, however, these have been shown to be faulty observation. The human like foot prints were actually small dinosaur prints. Other supposed anomalies are suspicious or even known outright frauds. Wouldn’t a metal hammer have rusted away after millions of years? You might find the rust imprint in the rock sample of the hammer, but not an intact hammer. So evolution is safe, for now.

If I could create a religion and demand people to worship me, I would be a god or prophet that would demand my followers use logic and reason. My dogma would be mathematics, the absolute, or at least as close to absolute that one can get. The holy book that people would get down on their knees and read with reverence would be a mathematical textbook with mathematical theorems that they would have to prove for themselves in order to prove themselves worthy of being called the faithful. They wouldn’t get away with accepting anything on blind faith. If you are going to have a dogma, you better be able to prove it, with solid and convincing evidence! Your faith would be based on solid rigorous and analytical proof.

Perhaps in a more logical world people would not have religions based on faith. They would have religions based on mathematics and the perfection of mathematics. All art, music, poetry would be mathematics inspired. They would not have temples dedicated to some god or other, but they would consider a library, school, or other house of knowledge as a place of worship. Logic, order and symmetry would be lauded. Mathematical theorems would be regarded as the Word of God. Solid deductions instead of faith would be considered important. After all, if the universe is mathematical and mathematics describes the universe so accurately, maybe it really is the Word of God. Even computer technology suggests this possibility. 3d modeling and 2d art is all mathematical, even while being intuitive, so is digital music and sound. You can create anything using numbers. I do it all the time.

If you are going to get on your knees before something, make sure that something is at least substantial or at least logical. Yes, there is a place for emotion, feelings and art. Right brained activity would not be prohibited. In fact, though the right brain is intuitive, it is often just as logical as the left brain, it just works differently in its logic.

But when it comes to matters of faith, you better have more than just mere belief, more than just dogma.


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