A ancient shepherd looks at the nighttime sky and wonders how the stars got up there. He wonders why they shift their positions as the year passes and why some burn white, some yellow, and some blue.
Using his intuition, he posits answers to these questions. When other men ask him what he thinks, he tells them his ideas.
Generations come and go and the shepherd’s ideas about the stars are repeated and repeated, usually with some minor modifications that suit the teller and in some way make the answers seem more plausible.
And they are received as plausible. Eventually, in fact, they are regarded as likely facts.
Over time, these likely facts become common knowledge. And with another hundred or a thousand similarly refined “likely facts” they become the common knowledge of the common culture. They become the common sense that allows people to understand their lives.
If a stranger wanders into town with an entirely different body of “common knowledge” he is seen as a madman or a troublemaker or a fool. If he’s thought to be mad, he’s relegated to the quadrants of the wandering mad. If he’s thought to be a troublemaker he’s run out of town or tarred and feathered or burned at the stake. If he’s thought to be a fool, he’s kept around for everyone’s amusement.
This is crude – but it’s how I believe most of the commonly accepted “truths” about our world and how it operates came into existence: they were born of limited observation, sparked into conjecture by wonder and turned into theories and then facts and then plain old common sense by the proliferation of their tellings.
This method of discover truth, I’m sure you would agree, leaves much to be desired. It feeds the imagination and can spark all sorts of impressive human inventions, but it is not a reliable method for ascertaining truth.
There is a better method – what we call the scientific method. It’s just as simple as this false method but it is more likely to lead us to facts. The scientific method goes like this:
We observe a phenomenon, wondering if there’s a natural law that governs it. Using our intuition, we posit a guess. We compute the consequences of that guess to see what it would mean in terms of predictable actions. Then we compare the results of those computations to nature using experiments or experience. If they jibe, we accept our guess as a scientific law. If they don’t, we reject it.
In trying to understand the nature and essence of being, this is the method we should use whenever possible. At the same time, we must be careful to avoid what Bertrand Russell called “intolerable propositions.”
Russell, one of the founders of analytic philosophy, came up with a clever analogy to illustrate the limits of logic – and to explain why you can’t have a meaningful conversation about anything if you begin with a presumption that is unacceptable in terms of human reason. Here it is…