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13 October, 2006

Rock Kicking

I've often thought that Dr. Johnson's famous refutation of immaterialism (he kicked a large rock) is a great metaphor for the scientific method. The essence of the scientific approach is that all ideas, whatever they are, must be tested against reality. That is, as in Johnson's case, if someone comes along with a fanciful notion - like that the world exists only in our imaginations - we go out and kick a rock and see if our toes get bruised. Of course, there are some very strict criteria for how to go about this rock-kicking (or the experimental method as it is known), but that's basically it. Scientists, unlike any other kind of thinkers, are the ones who go out and kick the rocks.

I started thinking about this again after reading an article in New Scientist about confabulation. This is a normal mental process where we, quite unconsciously, make up stories to explain things which have no apparent explanation. It becomes very obvious with some kinds of senility or severe memory loss, where people will sometimes invent quite fabulous tales to explain why they come to be where they are, in the company in which they find themselves. But, while confabulation can be pathological, it is also very much a normal part of who we are. Children can easily be encouraged to confabulate, as can people taking part in experiments that simulate eye witness testimony. And, having confabulated, people have a tendency to believe their own, untrue stories thereafter.

So, I wondered, what is there to stop us all from confabulating ourselves into a complete fantasy-world in an ever-ascending spiral of improbable tale and false memory? The answer, I would guess, is that we live among other people, who are always ready to correct our false recollections and to disapprove if our confabulations become too fantastical. We also happen to live in the real world and, no matter what we tell ourselves about it, it stubbornly refuses to be anything other than it is. So our tendency to confabulate is offset by our own informal rock-kicking, as well as social pressures to conform to a consensus about what is credible.

But what if our society was very limited - to just two people, say? Might that not lead to folie à deux, as each person's confabulations and false memories influence and modify the others' memories and understanding of the world? And what if we lived in only slightly bigger societies - villages, say - and very influential people were confabulating? One technique to cause people to confabulate more than usual is to press them to give an explanation for something they have little actual knowledge about. It is dangerous, because they are likely to form false memories in agreement with their 'explanation', so will believe it afterwards. Imagine a tribal elder, or some other leader, asked by their tribe or village to explain why the hunt failed, or why the floods washed out the crop. Imagine the confabulations they might come up with. The spirits of the earth? Magic? Gods? It wouldn't take much imagination.

Perhaps all myths and religions arose this way, from our natural tendency to confabulate, coupled with people we look to for guidance being put on the spot. Once a particular confabulation took hold as the common way of explaining the world and people throughout a society begin to lay down false memories of having spoken to God, or having seen an angel, the whole psyche of a culture could shift away from a grounded, reality-based understanding, to a mythical, fantasy-based one. If the rest of society is not laughing at you when you say you feel the grace of God, what is to keep you anchored in reality anymore? And, of course, it is not just the religious confabulations that get a grip on a society, non-religious ones can also thrive. Recent examples would be communism and fascism. Which explains why human societies all have their crazy mythologies and why, at times, these have spiralled out of control into the horror of the Inquisition and the Holocaust.

With the rise of rock-kicking science in the last few hundred years and its unparalleled and obvious success in improving people's lives and explaining the Universe, you might expect that the mythical confabulations would start to weaken. And, indeed, this seems to have happened. The body-blows to the mythical world-view dealt by scientists like Newton, Darwin and Freud, had it staggering for a while and probably explains what seems to have been a shift away, during the 20th Century, from the completely baseless nonsense confabulations, like religion, to more scientifically-based confabulations, like fascism and communism.

That science has survived at all despite these insane political confabulations using it to justify their conclusions, is testimony to its incredible effectiveness as a way of understanding the world. Much of the revival of crazy mythologies we are witnessing today is probably because of the taint these failed political experiments have left on science. The forces of mysticism would like science to be abolished completely because they know that by determinedly kicking all the rocks, we will eventually dispel all the myths. My fervent hope is that the practical value of science continues to bolster its support until that day comes.

So keep kicking those rocks, everyone.

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