Uncomfortable with Contradiction

Uncomfortable with Contradiction May 28, 2017

Uncomfortable with contradictions

The article from which the quote is taken is worth reading in its entirety. Here is another excerpt:

Some people are confused about how certainty and uncertainty can both co-exist at the same time in science, while too many opportunists (creationists and climate change deniers for instance) are ready to pounce on shreds of uncertain knowledge in the peripherals to declare the entire edifice uncertain and hollow. As science communicators, I think that we still fail to convey this co-existence of hard facts and room for doubt to non-specialists, and this failure is a significant reason for so many of our troubles in establishing a dialogue about science with the public.

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  • jekylldoc

    I always figured you are “on to something” if your idea about what is really at work leads to predictions you would not have otherwise made, and then these predictions are confirmed. We know that just one stubborn fact can falsify a whole theoretical structure, but the beautiful, wonderful consistency of nature means that repeating the same observation will consistently falsify it, and that if you find some previously unguessed predictions consistently confirming your theory, you are probably close even if falsification happens. Phlogiston was close to the oxygen theory. Both wave and particle are correct about light. Even Lamarck turns out to have been somewhat right, as epigenetics is showing.

    Non-scientists would do well to learn about these ambiguities. Yes, there can be massive confirmation of a theory and still be room for doubt. The whole business of imposing dichotomies, such as “true” or “false,” on theoretical structures is a source of much error and misunderstanding.

  • John MacDonald

    “Contradiction” in the article reminds me of textual hermeneutics.

    There is, of course, the message the author intended, like in Moby Dick where we learn about the tragic nature of revenge.

    But, as Derrida pointed out (“There is nothing beyond the text”), there may also be unconscious themes that the author didn’t consciously intend, but she accidentally put in the text nonetheless.

    Moreover, there may be a “trace” of something in the author’s text that may contradict (“contra dicere in Latin,” “speak against”) the author’s project, such as the way Aristotle may have detected the hint of something in Plato’s texts that threatened to overthrow Platonism. Or, how an author’s moral message may be tainted by hints of bigotry.

    And texts can be inherently ambiguous. So there can be a plurality of interpretations of the same text, while some interpretations “speak against” others, with no real ground for deciding between them: eg., Jesus as apocalyptic prophet, or charismatic healer, or Cynic philosopher, or Jewish Messiah, or prophet of social change, or mythical celestial being, or zealot. Each faction of interpreters point out that their model explains the available evidence, and that their model can effectively explain away any supposedly recalcitrant evidence.

    Hermeneutics are a humbling process that remind us of human frailty. And that’s a good thing. As the article pointed out, untold tragedy has happened in human history because people have acquainted “truth” with “certainty.” Certainty, as Nietzsche showed, is a psychological state, not a guarantee of truth. Everyone has had different points of view about things they once were “certain” about, such as Dr. Mcgrath’s fundamentalist youth changing into a liberal perspective of the academy. As Heidegger said, truth is more primordially seen as ἀλήθεια, which is not just “correctness,” but more originally (with the alpha privative, “a-letheia”) “unconcealed,” or “revealed,” or “exemplary,” like when we speak of someone going out of their way to help us that they are demonstrating what it means to be a “true” friend.

    • John MacDonald

      Before there can be truth as “correctness” (the agreement of a proposition with a state of affairs), there must be “ἀ-λήθεια,” “un-hiddenness.” For instance, before 1+1=2 is “true” for a child, it must be “revealed” with manipulatives that when you group one thing with another thing, you get two things.

      And, as Heidegger said, there is a “giving” to truth (“Es gibt Sein,” in German). Anyone who has stayed up all night trying with futility to solve a problem, when suddenly the answer “comes to them,” knows this (Eureka! I’ve found it – in Greek). The phenomenological experience of truth is more than just sheer effort, because there must be a revealing and a finding of what is given. Even today people in the Arts still speak of their’ ‘Muse,’ and if the muse isn’t inspiring you, it’s a wasted night of writers block.

      • John MacDonald

        For Plato, the journey of Truth is one where you follow your guiding perspective to the point where it reaches an “aporia,” a block in the path, and so you experience wonder (thaumazein) that you need to revise your guiding perspective. There is something beyond your guiding perspective which your guiding perspective can’t assimilate and so needs to be revised, something beyond Being (epekeina tes ousias, a phrase from Plato’s Republic 509b), which Plato called the idea tou agathou, (Republic 508e 2-3),the Idea of the Good, which is the source of all philosophical reflection One of the clearest examples of this in modern times Is the long journey of a fundamentalist to overturning their worldview and becoming secular.

        • John MacDonald

          Heidegger says that truth as “correctness” morphed into truth as “certainty with no doubt” when “truth” got assimilated into the Christian framework and got recast in the light of “certainty of salvation.”

  • See Noevo

    “Some people are confused about how certainty and uncertainty can both co-exist at the same time in science, while too many opportunists (creationists and climate change deniers for instance) are ready to pounce on shreds of uncertain knowledge in the peripherals to declare the entire edifice uncertain and hollow.”

    Everyone acknowledges uncertainty.
    Maybe the fights are over what can be considered a certainty.

  • Hi James, Ironically, I am polishing my law on tangible noncontradiction in a paper while your blogpost caught my eye, LOL. Pax, Jim

  • Tim

    It seems like Judaism is much more comfortable with contradictions and internal arguments, interestingly.