Dogma, in religions and other places

Most people are familiar with the dogmas promoted by powerful religious institutions such as the Roman Catholic church, evangelical protestant churches and some branches of Islam. The institutions claim they have sole possession of the truth, direct from God, and that anybody that does not agree is a heretic, someone to be avoided, and who may be punished.

Dogmatism is annoying, anti-social and causes a great deal of misery, both for people growing up under the power of the institution proclaiming the dogma and for some of those that interact with them.

It’s also pretty well recognised. One need only mention religious dogma and heads start to nod. People know what you’re talking about.

Despite the negative connotations the word has for most people, the leadership of the RC church does not object to the term and still uses it as a core part of its teachings. They invented the term, and use it without shame to describe propositions that the church says RCs are obliged to believe. When I was an RC I never thought to ask what happens if one does not believe a dogma. It seemed too impertinent. But now when I research it, the answer that appears fairly consistently across different RC sources is that it is not a sin to disbelieve the dogma, as long as you don’t say so aloud, because that might encourage somebody else to disbelieve it. That would be heresy, which is a grave sin, punishable by an eternity in hellfire. A few centuries ago, the punishment was lighter – a mere burning at the stake.

Although the RC church invented the word ‘dogma’, it is not the only institution to proclaim dogmas. There are plenty of dogmas in evangelical protestantism, and some variants of Islam are heavily dogmatic. Perhaps non-RCs would reject the application of the word ‘dogma’ to their essential beliefs, given the pejorative sense in which the word is mostly used these days. But it would be hard to argue that concepts such as ‘biblical inerrancy’ or ‘justification by faith alone’ are not dogmas for some protestant sects.
It would be a mistake to equate dogma with religion, because most religions are not dogmatic. It is just our misfortune that the three most dominant religions of our world: Roman Catholicism, Evangelical Protestantism and Islam have many adherents that assert an obligation to believe the relevant dogmas.

I am not aware of any pre-Christian religion that had obligatory beliefs. Judaism had many rules, but they were about practices, not beliefs. Even for worship, the injunction was to not worship other gods, or idols in particular. As long as you didn’t bow down or offer sacrifices to golden calves or statues of Ba’al, it didn’t matter whether, in the privacy of your own thoughts, you really believed Yahweh was the greatest god. In fact the Torah says nothing at all about obligatory beliefs, so far as I recall. Other pre-Christian religions, like Buddhism, the many variants of Hinduism, Mithraism, Zoroastrianism and the ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian religions also appear to set no expectations about their members’ beliefs.

Dogmas appear in places other than religions. Just as some protestants, while abjuring RC dogmas like the Immaculate Conception or Trans-substantiation, insist on their own dogmas, people who are opposed to all religions – the so-called New Atheists – can be as dogmatic as those they criticise. Classic New Atheist dogmas are things like ‘it is wrong to believe anything that cannot be proven to be true’, or ‘for all questions and human challenges, science is the best means to an answer’. For some militant atheists it even seems to be an item of faith that adherence to any religious belief at all must be a sign of stupidity. I know these dogmas because for a while I was a born-again atheist and subscribed to them. I used to listen to podcasts of debates between Christians and atheists about whether God exists, cheering on my side and hoping for the unconditional surrender of the other. Looking back, it seems such an odd thing to do. Neither the debaters nor their supporters in the audience ever changed their views one iota. Each side had their dogmas and stuck steadfastly to them. They may as well have both been shouting into the wind. But really I suppose they were just playing to their supporters. I believe such debates can never get anywhere because it is impossible to prove or disprove the existence of a god, and any attempt to do either relies on presuppositions – usually unstated –  that one side will accept and the other will not.

I have not completely forsaken atheism. I am still atheist on Mondays and alternate Wednesdays. But I have forsaken the dogmatism that accompanies the more aggressive variants of atheism.

Dogmas manifest in wider circles than the theological and anti-theological. Other areas where they crop up are philosophy, politics, economics, psychology and sociology. People debate whether there is such a thing as objective morality, whether equality is more important than liberty, whether wealth really does ‘trickle down’ in a capitalist society, and whether most psychological disorders can be traced back to early childhood experience. Debates between evangelical christians and militant atheists seem mild and friendly compared to the vicious passions unleashed in a debate between a Berkeleyan Idealist and a Materialist acolyte of GE Moore about whether a tree that falls in a forest makes a noise if there is nobody there to hear it.

I’m not suggesting that none of those things matter. It matters very much what political and economic theories are adopted by governments. They affect many people’s lives. Even some sorts of philosophy have huge effects. One can trace the roots of many important social movements to the ideas raised by philosophers, such as the influence of Enlightenment philosophers on the American and French revolutions. It’s hard to see how the ‘actual existence’ or otherwise of impossibly distant galaxies could affect our lives, but other similarly meaningless topics, such as whether the Holy Ghost proceeds from the Father and the Son, or just from the Father, have led to wars, the rise and fall of empires and many burnings of people that had the misfortune of siding with the wrong opinion.

The common element of dogmatic claims is not their capacity or otherwise to affect our lives, it is their total immunity to proof, disproof, or experimental testing of any kind.

There is no dogma about the law of gravity, no dogma of quantum mechanics or a doctrine of the periodic table. A good biology teacher will not demand that her class believe that cells of mammals have a nucleus containing bundles of DNA and little packets of RNA. A good mathematics teacher will not demand that the class believe that the method being taught for long division works. The teacher is saying: “Here is a method, or an approach to understanding something. Most people find it useful in getting important things done“. The teacher could add – but generally doesn’t bother – “If you don’t like what I’m teaching and want to go and invent your own method of long division (or theory of the elements), be my guest! I’ll still be here to help you learn this method if you change your mind.

It is both ironic and predictable that the claims about which we humans get most dogmatic are those about which it is least possible to be certain. When there is a high level of certainty – as with Newton’s Laws of Motion – there is no need for dogmatism. You can take it or leave it. More fool you if you leave it. But when there is little to no certainty available, as with doctrines of neo-liberal economics (or, to be fair, Marxist economics), doctrines of the nature of the Holy Ghost, or proofs and disproofs of the existence of god(s), people generally ramp up the dogmatism and turn the volume to eleven. They use dogma and noise to make up for their lack of confidence and inability to provide any concrete evidence for the proposition.

This has led to my strongest philosophical position being anti-dogmatism. No matter what proposition somebody makes, be it about religion, ontology, economics or politics, and regardless of whether I sympathise with the belief being promoted or not, I now instinctively react against it and look to debunk it, if it is made dogmatically. That doesn’t mean I don’t hold any opinions on those topics. I have loads. Some of them – mostly the political ones – I hold very strongly and am prepared to march the streets, donate to a cause and publicly argue to try to persuade people over. But I hope I never get to the stage of believing that I am unquestionably right about something and that those who disagree are unquestionably wrong. That seems a poor way to live. I have sometimes been like that in the past, but I think I am not now and hope I won’t be again. For me, unquestioningly accepting a dogma is the coward’s excuse for not thinking for oneself.

That is my opinion, which I acknowledge may be mistaken.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, April 2019

Mastering maths monsters

‘Partial differentiation’ is an important mathematical technique which, although I have used it for decades, always confused me until a few years ago. When I finally had the blinding insight that de-confused me, I vowed to share that insight so that others could be spared the same trouble (or was it just me that was confused?). It took a while to get around to it, but here it is:

My daughter Eleanor make a drawing for it, of a maths monster (or partial differentiation monster, to be specific) terrorising a hapless student. The picture only displays in a small frame at the linked site, so I’m reproducing it in all its glory here.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, October 2016

Acoustic ‘beats’ from mismatched frequencies

Here’s a piece I wrote explaining the mathematics behind the peculiar phenomenon of acoustic ‘beats’.

It’s a bit maths-y. But for those that don’t love maths quite as much as I do, it also has some interesting graphics and a few rather strange sound clips.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, August 2016

Too many words!

Books are too long. People talk for too long. Academic papers are too long. Almost everything is too long.

Why? Partly, because to be concise is very difficult. Urban legend has it that Blaise Pascal once wrote at the end of a letter to a friend: ‘I’m sorry this letter is so long. I didn’t have time to write a short one’.

I struggle with conciseness. Part of the problem is that, when I am trying to explain something, I worry about whether what I have said is clear enough, so I keep on saying it over, in a slightly different way each time, in the vague hope that one of the attempts will make the connection.

I think a better strategy might be to make one brief attempt at an explanation and then wait for a response. If more is needed, I imagine my interlocutor will tell me. If they do, the particular nature of their response will better enable me to tailor my next statement to fill in the information that was missing in my first.

But that requires discipline, and nerves of steel. It is like being silent in an interview after giving a short reply to a question – forcing the interviewer (or interrogator) to make the next move. Few people can carry that off, and I suspect I am not one of them.

Academic papers can be particularly irritating, droning on about all the references and who has written what, so that by the time one gets to the bit about what the authors have done that’s actually new, one is exhausted and wants to retire for a tea break. It’s not clear to me whether this is a stylistic practice, imposed by the producers and reviewers of journals, or whether it reflects insecurity on the part of the authors, who may feel that they need to mention some minimum number of other papers in order to be taken seriously.

Arthur Schopenhauer railed against this sort of writing in a series of essays collected under the title ‘The Art of Literature’. He opens with an unrestrained broadside ‘There are, first of all, two kinds of authors: those who write for the subject’s sake, and those who write for writing’s sake.‘ Schopenhauer loved the first (and of course considered himself to be one of them) and loathed the second.

If someone really has something important to say, it usually doesn’t take very long. When Neville Chamberlain announced the grim news to the British people in 1939 that Britain had declared war on Germany, the message had been delivered by the end of the 67th word. I did a test reading just now and it took about 26 seconds, including pauses for effect.

Einstein’s legendary 1905 paper that presented his special theory of relativity to the world, ending decades of confusion amongst physicists, is only 24 pages, and the key part that resolves the paradoxes by which physics was previously beset is complete by the end of page 12! John Bell’s paper that turned the world of Quantum Mechanics upside down in 1964 is only six pages. Bell cited only five references. Einstein cited none.

In general communication, most people use too many words. I do too, but I am trying to correct that. I feel that, where possible, I would like to conduct a post-mortem on every sentence I utter and work out whether that sentence has added any new information. If it hasn’t, then it was probably a waste of everybody’s time.

Politicians exploit this deliberately. They are trained to, when asked a difficult question by a journalist, give a long-winded, emphatic speech about something only tangentially related, thereby avoiding the issue and (they hope) making the journalist despair of persisting with the question because of the pressure of time. Even better, if the politician sounds confident in their ‘answer’, the less analytic watchers will form the impression that the politician is competent and frank. The more analytic types just shrug their shoulders in disgust and turn the telly off.

A sentence can be very long and yet not reveal what information it contains until late in the sentence. Sometimes there is a key word that makes it all fall into place, The words before that one stack up like the numbers in a long calculation on a Reverse Polish calculator, impotent while they wait for release. Then the key word comes and it all falls into place. It attains a meaning. The wait for that word can sometimes be prolonged, like in this:

Though they all came from different social strata, sub-cultures and occupations, crammed together against their will in the prison cell from which they wondered if there would ever be any release, though none of them had known each other – or even known of each other – in their previous lives, though they squabbled and quarrelled over the tiniest of things, the one thing that bound them together despite the rivalries and petty jealousies, the perceived slights and reconciliations, the development, disintegration and reformation of cliques, was a single shared emotion, an emotion so powerful that they could feel it oozing out of one anothers’ pores, smell it on their breath and discern it in the tones of voice – the emotion of fear.

In some cases, the key word never comes. Perhaps the writer or speaker confuses themselves by their excessive verbiage and ends the sentence with an admission of defeat.

Books are too long as well! Novels are generally OK, as it takes time to get to know and care about the characters. But I have a strong sense that non-fiction books are often padded to reach whatever is considered a minimum page count for a book – usually at least 200. There isn’t really a strong market for writings that are halfway between essay and book length. In many cases a book really only has one idea, which could make a decent essay, but doesn’t justify a book. But essays don’t get to be put on a prominent shelf that catches your eye as you enter the bookshop, nor do they get listed on the New York Times best sellers’ list.

Nassim Taleb’s famous book ‘The Black Swan’ is like that. It really only contains one idea, which is that investors, bankers and other financiers have for decades been making crucial financial decisions based on theories in which they assume that the future will be like the past, and that all occurrences of randomness must follow the Normal Distribution (the nice friendly old ‘Bell Curve’). Decisions based on that erroneous, oversimplified assumption have repeatedly led to disasters, because events tend to be more extreme than is predicted by the Bell Curve. Taleb’s is a good insight, and definitely worth saying, but probably not worth stringing out to book length.

And then, if the book sells well, they write it again, ever so slightly differently, and pretend it’s a new book, with new ideas. Taleb did that. Self-help authors do it all the time – which raises the question ‘If your first book about how to live a better life was so incomplete that it needs to be supplemented by a second, why did I waste my time reading it?‘ I suspect Richard Dawkins may do it too. As far as I can tell he has written at least four popular explanations of evolution. I read The Blind Watchmaker and thought it was great (but too long, of course!). But I didn’t read The Selfish Gene, The Ancestors’ Tale or The Greatest Show on Earth because I couldn’t see any indicators that they would contain much substance that hadn’t already been covered in the one I had read. I imagine there is some new material in each of them, but I would guess it’s more likely to be a dozen pages’ worth rather than 200+.

Fiction authors and other creative artists do this too. Stravinsky acidly observed that Vivaldi wrote the same marvellous concerto five hundred times. Bach shamelessly reused his work (goodness knows he was paid little enough for it!) and Enid Blyton invented maybe a dozen adventure and fantasy stories, which she recycled into what seems like hundreds of similar tales (surely I’m not the only one that’s noticed the remarkable similarity between Dame Slap’s School for Bad Pixies and Mr Grim’s School for Mischievous Brownies?). And let’s not even mention Mills and Boon. But somehow I don’t mind that so much. We humans are story-telling animals, and telling the same story repeatedly, changing it just a little every time, is what we have always done. I find myself able to smile indulgently on the prolixity of Enid and Antonio and Mills (?), but alas not on that of Nassim or Richard, or Deepak Chopra.

I think I’ve ranted for long enough now about how We All (including me) need to work on being more concise with our communication. It’s time to relent a little.

Not all language is just about conveying information, so the efficiency with which the information is conveyed is not always the best test. In comforting a frightened child, information communication is not the purpose of our speech. I will restrain myself from objecting that the second half of the soothing phrase ‘There, there‘ is informationally redundant. In fact, I think I could even stretch to approving of its repetition, if its first invocation was insufficient to assuage the poor mite’s distress.

Declarations of love, expressions of support, telling jokes, goodbyes, hellos and well-wishes are all ‘speech acts’ that have important non-informational components. It seems appropriate to apply different expectations to those speech acts from those we apply to informational speech. Even there, there are limits though. Many’s the operatic love aria I’ve sat through where after a while I just feel like screaming ‘OK, you love him, we get it, can we move on with the plot now please?’ And waiting for Mimi to die in La Boheme (of consumption, what else?) in between faint protestations of her love for Rodolfo, can become a little trying on one’s patience after the first ten minutes of the death scene.

But communication of information is the purpose of much of the language we use, especially in our work lives. It is a pity that so much of it is ill-considered.

Hmmm. 1,742 words. I wonder if I could turn this into a book.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, November 2015

Metaphysics as a creative craft

In my writings I have not infrequently been dismissive of metaphysics, arguing that most metaphysical claims are meaningless, unfalsifiable, and of no consequence to people’s lives (leaving aside the unfortunate historical fact that many people have been burned at the stake for believing metaphysical claims that others disliked).

Perhaps it is time to relent a little – to give the metaphysicians a little praise. At least I will try. The basis for this attempt is a re-framing of what metaphysics is about. Instead of thinking of it as a quasi-scientific activity of trying to work out ‘what the world is like’, perhaps we could instead think of it as a creative, artistic activity, of inventing new ways of thinking and feeling about the world. Metaphysics as a craft, as delightful and uncontentious as quilting.

Why would anybody want to do that? Well I can think of a couple of reasons, and here they are (except that, like the chief weapons of Python’s Spanish Inquisitor, the number of reasons may turn out to be either more or less than two).

We know that there is a very wide range of human temperaments, longings, fears and attachments. A perspective that is inspiring to one person may be terrifying to another, and morbidly depressing to a third. For instance some people long to believe in a personal God that oversees the universe, and would feel their life to be empty and meaningless without it. Others regard the idea with horror. Some people are very attached to the idea that matter – atoms, quarks and the like – really, truly exists rather than just being a conceptual model we use to make sense of our experiences. Philosophical Idealists (more accurately referred to as Immaterialists) have no emotional need for such beliefs, and accordingly deny the existence of matter, saying that only minds and ideas are real. Indeed some, such as George Berkeley, regard belief in matter as tantamount to heresy, which is why the subtitle of his tract ‘Three dialogues between Hylas and Philonous‘, which promoted his Immaterialist hypothesis, was ‘In opposition to sceptics and atheists‘.

So the wider the range of available metaphysical hypotheses, the more chance that any given person will be able to find one that satisfies her, and hence be able to live a life of satisfaction, free of existential terror. Unless of course what they really long for is existential terror, in which case Kierkegaard may have a metaphysical hypothesis that they would love.

One might wonder – ‘why do we need metaphysical hypotheses, when we have science?‘ The plain answer to this is ‘we don’t‘. But although we do not need them, it is human nature to seek out and adopt them. That’s because, correctly considered, science tells us not ‘the way the world is‘, but rather, what we may expect from the world. A scientific theory is a model that enables us to make predictions about what we will experience in the future – for instance whether we will feel the warmth of the sun tomorrow, and whether if we drop an apple we will see it fall. Scientific theories may seem to say that the world is made of quarks, or spacetime, or wave functions, but they actually say no such thing. What they say is, if you imagine a system that behaves according to the following rules – which might be rules about subatomic particles like quarks – and you observe certain phenomena (such as my letting go of the apple), then the behaviour of that imaginary system can guide you as to what you will see next (such as the apple falling to the ground).

It’s just as well that scientific theories say nothing about ‘the way the world is’, because they get discarded every few decades and replaced by new ones. The system described by the new theory may be completely different from that described by the previous one. For instance the new one may be all about waves while the previous one was all about tiny particles like billiard balls (electrons, protons and neutrons in the Rutherford model of the atom). But most of the predictions of the two theories will be identical. Indeed, if the old theory was a good one, it will only be in very unusual conditions that it makes different predictions from those of the new theory (eg if the things being considered are very small, very heavy or very fast). So by recognising that scientific theories are descriptions of imaginary systems that allow us to make predictions, rather than statements about the way the world is, we get much greater continuity in our understanding of the world, because not much changes when a theory is replaced.

I think of metaphysics as the activity of constructing models of the world (‘worldviews’) that contain more detail and structure than there is in the models of science. We do not need the more detailed models of metaphysics for our everyday life. Science gives us everything we need to survive. But, being naturally curious creatures, we tend to want to know what lies behind the observations we make, including the observations of scientific ‘laws’. So we speculate – that the world is made of atoms like billiard balls, or strings, or (mem’)branes, or a wave function, or a squishy-wishy four-dimensional block of ‘spacetime’, or quantum foam, or ideas, or noumena, or angels, demons, djinn and deities. This speculation leads to different mental models of the world.

So metaphysics adds additional detail to our picture of the world. Some suggest that it also adds an answer to the ‘why?’ question that science ignores (focusing only on ‘how?’). I reject that suggestion. As anybody knows that has ever as a child tried to rile a parent with the ‘but why?’ game, and as anybody that has been thus riled by a child knows, any explanation at all can be questioned with a ‘but why?’ question. No matter how many layers of complexity we add to our model, each layer explaining the layer above it, we can always ask about the lowest layer – ‘but why?’ Whether that last layer is God, or quarks, or strings, or the Great Green Arkleseizure, or even Max Tegmark’s Mathematical Universe, one can still demand an explanation of that layer. By the way, my favourite answers to the ‘But why?’ question are (1) Just because, (2) Nobody knows and (3) Why not? They’re all equally valid but I like (3) the best.

Some of these mental models have strong emotional significance, despite having no physical significance. For instance strong solipsism – the belief that I am the only conscious being – tends to frighten people and make them feel lonely. So most people, including me, reject it, even though it is perfectly consistent with science. Some people get great comfort from metaphysical models containing a god. Others find metaphysical models without gods much more pleasant.

So I would say that metaphysics, while physically unnecessary, is something that most people cannot help doing to some extent, and that people often develop emotional attachments to particular metaphysical models.

Good metaphysics is a creative activity. It is the craft of inventing new models. The more models there are, the more people have to choose from. Since there are such great psychological and emotional differences between people, one needs a great variety of models if everybody that wants a model is to be able to find a model with which they can be comfortable.

Bad metaphysics (of which there is a great deal in the world of philosophy) is trying to prove that one’s model is the correct one. I call this bad because there is no reason to believe that there is such a thing as ‘the correct model’ and even if there was one, we’d have no way of finding out what it is. There can be ‘wrong’ models, in the sense that most people would consider a model wrong if it is logically inconsistent (ie generates contradictions). But there are a myriad of non-contradictory models, so there is no evidence that there is such a thing as ‘the right model’. Unfortunately, it appears that most published metaphysics is of this sort, rather than the good stuff.

It’s worth noting that speculative science is also metaphysics. By ‘speculative science’ I mean activities like string theory or interpretations of quantum mechanics. I favour Karl Popper’s test for whether a model is (non-speculative) science, which is whether it can make predictions that will falsify the model if they do not come true. A model that is metaphysical can move into the domain of science if somebody invents a way of using it to make falsifiable predictions. Metaphysical models have done this in the past. A famous example is the ‘luminiferous aether’ theory, which was finally tested and falsified in the Michelson-Morley experiment of 1887. Maybe one day string theorists will be able to develop some falsifiable predictions from the over-arching string theory modeli that will move it from the realm of metaphysics to either accepted (if the prediction succeeds) or discarded (if the prediction fails) science. However some metaphysical models seem unlikely to ever become science, as one cannot imagine how they could ever be tested. The debate of Idealism vs Materialism (George Berkeley vs GE Moore) is an example of this.

So I hereby give my applause to (some) metaphysicians. Some people look at philosophy and say it has failed because it has not whittled down worldviews to a single accepted possibility. They say that after three millenia it still has not ‘reached a conclusion’ about which is the correct worldview. I ask ‘why do you desire a conclusion?‘ My contrary position is to regard the proliferation of possibilities, the generation of countless new worldviews, as the true value of metaphysics. The more worldviews the better. Philosophy academics working in metaphysics should have their performance assessed based not on papers published but on how many new worldviews they have invented, and how evocatively they have described them to a thirsty and variety-seeking public. Theologians could get in on the act too, and some of the good ones (a minority) do. Rather than trotting out dreary, flawed proofs of the existence of God. the historicity of the resurrection, or why God really does get very cross if consenting grown-ups play with one another’s private parts, they could be generating creative, inspiring narratives about what God might be like and what our relationship to the God might be. They could manufacture a panoply of God mythologies, one to appeal to every single, unique one of us seven billion citizens of this planet. Some of us prefer a metaphysical worldview without a God, but that’s OK, because if the philosopher metaphysicians do their job properly, there will be millions of those to choose from as well. Nihilists can abstain from all worldviews, and flibbertigibbets like me can hop promiscuously from one worldview to another as the mood takes them.

We need more creative, nutty, imaginative, inspiring metaphysicians like Nietzsche, Sartre, Simone Weil and Soren Kierkegaard, not more dry, dogmatic dons that seek to evangelise their own pet worldview to the point of its becoming as ubiquitous as soccer.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, January 2015

i. Not just a prediction of one of the thousands of sub-models. Falsifying a sub-model of string theory is useless, as there will always be thousands more candidates.