Thursday, December 20, 2007

Larceny Week: Buridan on Fundamentalism

Jean Buridan was a fourteenth century thinker whose theory of impetus began the march away from Aristotelian physics and towards Newtonian. Consider an arrow. While the bow is pushing on it, we can understand why it moves forward, but the instant it leaves the bow, why does it still fly forward instead of falling straight down to the ground? Aristotle doesn't give us an answer (well, not a good one at least -- his line was that the displaced air from the front came around and pushed from behind), but Buridan argued that it was because the string had imparted impetus to the arrow, what we would later call inertia.

He was also famous for his illustration of the principle of sufficient reason wherein a donkey is placed at the exact center of a bridge with identical bales of hay at either end. What happens? Buridan argues that the donkey starves to death because the pull in both directions is equal. If one bale was larger or the distance shorter, then there would be reason to prefer one over the other, but complete symmetry would lead to an inability to choose.

This example goes by the colorful name, "Buridan's ass" which is also the name of one of my favorite blogs from which I have poached today's question that deals, funny enough, with what counts as good reason to choose.

The following is a disguised version of an actual comment from another blog. I changed the wording around (hopefully enough) so that it couldn’t be immediately identifiable but without drastically changing the substance.

Don’t misunderstand me here. I’m not using this as an example of religious stupidity or to poke fun. Quite the contrary. This person was asking very smart questions, and I’m curious as to how you might answer them.

I’m not all that smart by your standards. I have a tenth grade education and usually don’t think very much about intellectual stuff but I do have some questions and opinions about certain things.

I know science has its way of looking at the world and does this according to certain rules and methods. It gives us a lot of useful information because of these rules and we all benefit from science in many ways. My question is why couldn’t there be another way of looking at the world that would give us just as useful results as science?

I believe in the bible and live my life according to its rules. I’m not a complete fundamentalist but I do believe that the bible has the final word on most things. I do think that there are other ways or rules that can lead to truth as well but not everything. Even so, sometimes the bible is very clear about a subject and if I have to chose between the bible and some other way, like science, I have to follow what the bible says, even if the scientific way says it’s not true. I do this because this is what my religion requires me to do.

So if I have an opinion about something and my opinion is based on my belief in the bible, why is it automatically dismissed by science because it follows different rules? What makes the rules of science that much better than the rules of the bible?
Ground rule for this discussion -- no snark. I know that is hard for this crowd, but this is an honest question that deserves an honest answer. Take the person listening to be earnest and legitimately open to other possibilities. What would a fair and persuasive response look like?