Pietro Toniolo

2007-12-28

Not knowing

Filed under: conoscenza, religione — Tags: , , , — ptoniolo @ 19:21:02

Da una lettera di Ralph Estling, pubblicata sullo Skeptical Inquirer, vol.31 n.5, sep/oct 2007:


   Einstein said that “Reason takes you to one place, imagination takes you around the world.” You’re quite right; we must have imagination. The point is, it must not have us. As Humpty Dumpty says, it’s just a question of who is to be master, that’s all. I think Einstein would have agreed that we must start with imagination but not hard thinking. Much of what we call religion is just ethical behavior, which can be quite satisfactorily explained on anthropological, sociological, cultural, and psychological foundations, without incorporating nothing supernatural. Yes, there are unknowns; there are always unknowns. The point is to try to make them known while accepting the possibility that this may be impossible. But we must not assume that unknowns must remain forever unknown just because they’re unknown now.

   Yes, misuse of religion doesn’t invalidate its usefulness, but that’s not the point. The point is rather to use its useful bits, its ethics, and ignore what’s useless, the supernatural and paranormal bits, at least until some evidence for them is found. I use the term useless advisely. The supernatural is very useful, in its way. It comes in handy as a sort of nontool for getting the job done, i.e., living through one’s life without asking too many difficult questions, seeking many hard-to-get answers. It certainly has its pragmatic side. But pragmatism, while useful in getting jobs done, isn’t enough. It may be for chimps and dolphins but not for humans –well, some humans.
   In the meantime, I await evidence that divine or what you call superior intelligence might be out there, somewhere. Superior intelligences are certainly a possibility that must be dealt with –I can’t think of anything more dismal and depressing than the possibility that humans are the greatest intelligences in the whole universe– but I have severe doubts about divinities.
   In any case, I think we should make use of what intelligence we have to think as reasonably as we can. The obvious fact that there are plenty of things that are unknown is no argument for nonthought, i.e., for allowing for possibilities that have nothing going for them except for wish-fulfillment. We can’t prove beyond doubt that there is no Santa Claus, no Tooth Fairy, no fairies of any sort or description at the bottom of our or anybody else’s garden, or unicorns, dragons or a million and one other “possibilities,” but I don’t think this is cause to be “open-minded” and ambivalent about their existence. Reason is and always will be an imperfect tool for digging out realities, but it’s the best tool we have and so we might just as well use it, at least until something better comes along and, at the moment, I can’t think of anything that’s better or even comes close. Not knowing something with absolute certainty doesn’t compel us to enter into a strict neutrality when it comes to using our head as well as our head allows. And I can’t get more banal than that.

Queste frasi mi hanno fatto venire in mente l’ultima parte dell’intervista al grande fisico Richard Feynman, in un documentario della BBC: “Feynman – The Pleasure of Finding Things Out” (Horizon – 1981):

I can live with doubt, and uncertainty, and not knowing
I think it is much more interesting to live not knowing than have answers which may be wrong
I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things
I’m not absolutely sure about many things and many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here, what the question might mean…
but I don’t have to know an answer
I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things
by being lost in a misterious universe that have any purpose
which is the way it really is, as far as I can tell, possibly…
It doesn’t frighten me.

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