Divine Neutrality, Blog. Science, Philosophy


September 8th, 2015

Hypotheses I cannot prove; taken on faith

I’m thinking about my axioms of faith. On what unprovable hypotheses do I confront the world. My axioms are my prejudices; the fewer the better. The first one is this:

1. That reality exists. That a world exists in whose catalogue of entities I am one. And what I encounter of its other entities are my access to reality.

But illusions exist. They may be mistaken for reality but are not ‘real’. One such is that the sun sets! The sun’s apparent motion in the sky is an illusion. The effect is entirely due to the rotation of the earth on which we are fixed; that is the reality. Other illusions are not on such a grand scale; most are of a personal nature. That a snail speaks to you.

How are we to know that we know reality? How are we to distinguish between what exists in reality and our interpretation of reality? To distinguish objective from subjective? These words, ‘objective’ and ‘subjective,’ are the ones which are commonly used to partition the two; to differentiate reality from strictly personal experience.

Many philosophers contend that nothing is objective. You can’t ever be sure that you know reality. The moving-sun illusion epitomizes that idea. Until a few hundred years ago the whole world’s consensus was that the sun is an object that physically moves across the sky from east to west. Like a bird or clouds move across the sky. Mankind surely classed this as an objective fact. But, that the sun moves is a communally subjective experience. It is not an objective fact but an illusion shared by many.

Since our notions of what constitutes reality can change, how can we, in fact, trust that we know what reality is? The axiom of faith that reality exists is of no consequence without addressing how one can know reality. And there is no assurance that one can. So to proceed further I need another axiom of faith. It’s this:

2. That the ‘provisionally objective’ findings of science are genuine pictures of reality. So all we can know of this reality comes from studying the world via the methods of science. In exploring the world scientifically we are learning about reality; its parameters and properties, the laws governing it. That’s the axiom.

A problem arises in that science can change its mind. That ideas be revised in the light of new evidence is at the kernel of scientific inquiry. What is classified by science as objective reality may change. So how can we speak of an objective reality if what is considered to be objective turns out later not to be so. To cope with this we have to take ‘objective’ to mean the ‘provisionally objective’ idea of science.

The axiom, then, is that the current findings of science constitute what we know of reality. Science gives a valid picture of reality; pictures that contradict science are not valid. By this axiom what is classed as objective, changes with scientific understanding. So that the word, ‘objective,’ must be understood as ‘provisionally objective’. Objective is whatever current science says it is.

The methods of science include these two features:

a. To be classified as objective, an event must be verifiable. Events not verifiable by independent observers may not be ranked as objective.

No one knows the experience of another only the outward signs. The outward signs can be verified. The color called blue is consistently indicated by all parties. That this color is blue is thus verified. But whether, in fact, Smith’s experience of blue is the same as Snell’s is not verifiable. The experience is, therefore, subjective, not objective.

b. Theoretical deductions from verifiable experience about how the world works must bear the signature of refutability. Out of the theory must come a prediction for the outcome of an experiment. Such a deciding experiment is one that includes possible outcomes, which if observed, would refute the theory. This notion is charmingly portrayed in an essay by Karl Popper – as valid today as when written. (‘Science: Conjectures and Refutations’ in “Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge” by Karl Popper (1963) Routledge, N.Y.)

Using these axioms a remarkable finding emerges: that data collected via science can be represented by mathematical rules. We see that nature is governed by laws. These can be cast as mathematical equations. The universe is not capricious. There are underlying rules which govern its behavior. Order in the universe resides precisely in the laws that govern it. It is this that gives rise to the conviction that everything proceeds by natural process by which is meant, processes investigatable by science.

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Right Wrongs

August 1st, 2015

Drowning in the ocean of injustice.

Context: An atomic bomb was dropped by the U.S. on Hiroshima, Japan in August of 1945. This event was the critical one which ended the Second World War. Some claim that it was an act of savagery needlessly killing many because the war could have been ended without that event.

Dear Ted:

Thank you for the passages from Zinn. (H. Zinn, 2010, “The Bomb”) Your outrage against the injustice portrayed by Zinn is understandable. My world outlook forbids me from accepting Zinn’s thesis without scrutiny but let us accept it for the sake of conversation. The thesis is this:

    Influential advisors, mainly Jim Byrnes, led President Truman, in 1945, to sacrifice the lives of over 200,000 people unecessarily, by dropping an atomic bomb on them, for the sake of a political power gambit: to pre-empt any Russian influence in the defeat of Japan. To “let us dictate the terms of ending the war.”

Let’s grant this interesting thesis. What are we to make of it?

I know, Ted, what you make of it. A reason for moral outrage. A call to wake fellow citizens to this atrocity committed by our government.

To what purpose? To let the decision makers know that inhumane actions will earn them the curses of posterity? To let politicians know that future bad behavior will lose them their constituency? To inaugurate more responsible leadership, a more humane society?  May these come to pass.

Ted, I am grateful that there are human beings like you, about. Our world would be a seethingly evil place were there not compassionate, selfless and concerned people among us. The lives of many are blessed because of your dedication. There is power in your indignation.

What I would like to understand is this: how do you keep from drowning in the evident ocean of injustice, suffering and misery around us?

For every exposé by Zinn, ten thousand lay buried. And without any Zinns at all there are valid calls for justice and humanity in every direction. Against the torture of human beings. For the care of the poor, the oppressed, the sick. For the rescue of the persecuted and of the refugees migrating to escape war. How bear the overwhelming burden of what is so evident; that the calls for help are interminable? And valid!

Most must be ignored. Else what time is left for play, for art, for merriment, for the fanciful, for adventure, for science, for theater, for rejoicing and celebrating life? For irrelevancy? For delicious decadence? Musn’t one ignore injustice – at least for intervals of time? Were the burden of injustices to infuse all art and dance and music it would be a sorry world. As sorry as it would be to lose those who fight for justice. Ones meagre allotment of life’s spare moments may be rationed in many ways: used to play games, used to be entertained, to go shopping, for socializing, used to explore nature, to succor the needy, to right wrongs and to promote justice, to analyze the righting of wrongs  . . .

Fighting injustice is one of the passions; as consuming and noble as that for art or for dancing or for science or playing tennis or buying clothes …  We allot our most precious life moments to these enthusiasms. Fighting injustice is a passion. It has an appeal to some. It is ignored by others. They are consumed with other enthusiasms.

Righteous indignation is a very compelling emotion. When it engulfs me I lose perspective, become humorless. So I try to minimize it. I cannot be righteously indignant and celebrate life. Jubilation and anger don’t coexist.

Therefore my reaction to Zinn’s news is not righteous indignation. This news is about one of ten thousand wrongs to be righted; on my ranking, not worth my time. I am no activist to make the world a better place. There is no respite from that angry task.

Worse, the task may be in vain. The goal is too elusive to be achieved. From my readings the decision to drop the atom bomb is the norm for history. It’s what I would expect. Of government. Of business. Of academe. Of my neighbors. What any constituency demands of its leaders is decisive actions on the basis of personal conviction.

‘The world will be a better place’, thought Byrnes and Truman, ‘if Japan is kept out of Russian hands. A blow of overwhelming awesome power would accomplish it. That 200,000 Japanese would die was of minor concern; they, the enemy, would enslave us if they could.’

Truman and Byrnes were sure what ‘good’ was. One cannot imagine that they viewed their action as atrocity; as doing evil? Not even Zinn would say so, I’m sure. They perceived their decision as a good. They believed they were working from a broader perspective; steering the ship of state not only by the sea at its bow but by the look of the whole broad ocean of history around them.

And, indeed, many would not fault them. Suppose the Russians had invaded before the war ended. The atom bomb preceded the scheduled Soviet invasion only by days. With their troops in Japan the Russians would have leverage for a voice in the peace. They had just such leverage in Eastern Europe and in Germany. There the Soviets created despotic puppet states in which generations of people suffered abuse of human rights, lived poorly and in terror. How would the Japanese have faired under such Soviet domination? Not happily, I’m sure. Were 200,000 lives worth fifty years of prosperity and freedom from Soviet oppression? I expect even Japanese could be found to say that it was.

Values change. What’s right now becomes what’s wrong later. A generation ago the virtue of eating meat was unquestioned in the West. Now less people eat beef. One commonly hears the moral rationale, “I only eat what I, myself, could kill”. That principle would restrict me to lettuce, flies and mosquitos! Too unappetizing a principle for me to contemplate. But those who know the ‘good’ view my choice to eat beef as bad.

Any number of things might have gone differently if Byrnes had not prevailed. These scenarios would be the theses of alter-Zinn historians full of righteous indignation that Truman withheld the bomb when, in the name of humanity, he could have used it.

Acting within the context of their situation – the hysteria of war and their personal prejudices – a decision was made to make the world a better place. From our present broad humanitarian perspective we find the world is not a better place. Or is it?

May my words be powerless, Ted, to sway you from your crusades.


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July 1st, 2015

Sadye Stories

queue My mother’s name was Sadie. By some coup of whim I had thought she spelled it ‘Sadye’ when I suggested that name for our new born daughter to her mother. My precious wife, Elfi, acceded so our daughter became Sadye.


Sadye was a 5 year old in kindergarten in 1997. The children were on an outing. They were invited to visit a nearby farm. We lived in a rural area where this was easily possible. I and a few other children’s parents had come along to help.

Kevin, a mentally impaired child, is a member of the class. He is attended by both of his parents. They are making an effort to ‘mainstream their child’, to give him some quality of life even with his great handicap. Kevin needs them. He makes sudden explosive shrieks, animal-like groans and grunts. He can’t help it. These sounds issue from him uninvited.

I hear the other children’s parents. One says to another in anger, “That child shouldn’t be here. It’s disturbing for our kids.”

But what about Kevin?  Should he be quarantined from humanity?


At age 6, Sadye enthusiastically discusses the color of the Easter eggs and where she found them but never the nature of the Easter bunny. The compelling question is, “Where are the eggs hidden?” Deep contemplations about the nature of the egg placer – a multicolored-hard-boiled-egg-laying rabbit – holds no appeal at all.

For Whom the Blessing?

It’s winter. Cold outside and even inside; especially at night. In the morning I wake my 9 year old daughter, Sadye, with loving kisses. I sit down carefully on the edge of her bed, bend over to gently stroke her forehead and whisper quietly, “Good morning, my lovely. Time to get up out of those cozy warm covers. Are you awake?”

Eyes kept closed she nods sleepily; by which she means that she has received the message and will shortly get up. I leave the room, go to the kitchen and greet my wife preparing breakfast. Ten or fifteen minutes later Sadye comes out. Well. Often she does. Occasionally she takes longer or comes out in a mood less than jubilant. But usually she bounces out of her room all showered, dressed and ready for the day.

Any adult must perceive the beauty in having a loving father for an alarm clock. One must certainly get out of bed somehow – by the clock or otherwise. Better wake to kisses than to shrill ringing. And how does young Sadye view the ritual. She would portray it this way: “In the morning my father comes in to make me get up and get dressed.”

There is no rancor in this. She doesn’t compare my kisses to an alarm clock. She compares them to ‘not having to get up at all’. So the ritual is a blessing, not so much for Sadye, as it is for her father.


Living in the woods there is outdoor tidying to be done. The brush grows high in early spring and becomes a fire hazard. It must be cut down. The debris foliage is gathered into large dome-shaped stacks; each perhaps 7 feet high and 30 feet around. To dispose of them, I burn such stacks of brush to ash. It’s done before the fire hazard season begins, in early May. There are brush burnings every spring all over the neighborhood.

A stack of brush is mighty to behold for a 6 year old. It’s a lot of stuff. Sadye watches the burn. In the end all that stuff ends up as a small pile of feathery ash no more than 3 inches high. And the weight of the ash is far less than the weight of that big pile of brush.

I ask Sadye, “What happened to all that stuff? The ash is far less stuff then the original brush was. Where did it all go?”

Looking at me in puzzled surprise she answers with assurance “It burned up.” She accepts the dematerialization of matter as a fact of nature. Movie and TV fairies often disappear in clouds of smoke.

“Where did it go?” had no significance or meaning. The question was, “How do you account for the matter that was there?”  Sadye’s perception was, “It ceased to exist. The matter became nothing. Why should it go anywhere?”

Up to the middle of the eighteenth century the whole world shared Sadye’s perception. Then Antoine Lavoisier asked himself that question and aswered it by experiment. He was careful to include the weight of everything involved – the substance burned, the air around it and the residue. And he found that the stuff did go somewhere.

The smoke was ‘matter leaving’. Matter went up in the smoke. The wood reacted chemically with oxygen in the air and combined with it to spew matter into the air. Lavoisier had discovered that, although matter may change its form or shape, its mass always remains the same. That’s what all the subscript and prefix numbers in every chemical formula do; account for mass. That mass is to be accounted for, is the foundation stone of all of chemistry.

How remarkably fertile that innocuous question has been: “Where did it go?”

Lavoisier’s was one of the greatest minds of his time. He was guillotined by the French revolution. The revolution that helped bring enlightenment into the world killed its most enlightened citizen.

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