A few thoughts on science versus the arts versus faith
The friend is an English Literature graduate who has a very vague interest in science, but regards it as an amusing game and delights in stories that appear to poke holes in it, such as the faster-than-light neutrinos one. I sent him a couple of links I thought would possibly interest him - first, the Bad Astronomy blog's take on the FTL-neutrino result and then Jean Baptiste Queru's lovely little piece on the complexity of modern computing.
Read the second one first.
It's totally irrelevant, but it explains why such subjects are really hard and difficult to explain without a very VERY large amount of background knowledge.
To the point that in the modern world, there is almost no single thing that can be understood in a single lifetime. Collectively, we know so much about the world that no one human mind and brain can hold everything there is to know about, say, a grain of sand.
But if you have a little bit of the right kind of education, you know where to start, where to get a toe in a crack, and you can climb up the rock-face.
The snag is that if you don't have that specific special kind of education - if you have, say, a liberal-arts education - then you don't have that first tiny opening to put a toe into. And without that, there is no way up the wall at all. The only way is to walk away and spend several whole years doing nothing but solidly reading to educate yourself, and then you have the tiny crack and can start to climb. Several years of work to begin a climb that will take the rest of your life.
And I think that is tragic. That is why I think that pure arts education is, ultimately, a waste of time and effort. It doesn't equip you to understand the real world. It just shows you pretty pictures.
The best arts education, one that results from decades of work and a professorship or two, generally gives someone an excellent and unsurpassed understanding of the view of the other people standing on the ground. Some of them are very beautiful. It's a very nice view. It tells you what the other people standing on the ground think. It's not the real world, it's just an artificial, created thing which is not one millionth of a millionth of the mind-shattering real world.
A good understanding of the arts is something lovely and arguably well worth having, but it is to stand in a single small room admiring a handful of paintings on the walls and never to look out of the window and realise that you are in an airship, sailing along over the most astoundingly beautiful landscapes, over seas and mountains and forests and lakes and mighty cities filled with museums and universities and films and concerts - over all the knowledge and the beauty that the whole universe contains.
You seem to think that between us we could, as some sort of Socratic dialogue, write a book that would explain all of science to an arts graduate. Not so. One book, even one a thousand pages long, could not begin to provide a needle to scratch the surface of the rock-face.
You need to spend about a decade of your youth studying science to even be able to see the crack to put your toe into to start to climb the rock-face.
I gave up formally studying science nearly 25y ago. I am such a short distance up the rockface that my waist or knees are still level with your head, and I will probably never get any higher.
But from up here, I can see a view crammed with wonders and marvels that you and every other arts graduate, sitting or standing on the ground, cannot even begin to imagine. If I try to tell you, you will simply not believe me, it is so vast, so amazing, so wonderful, so beautiful.
The shortest, clearest description of a tiny part of it that I have ever seen was Carl Sagan's Cosmos TV series. It is dated but it is wonderful, as in, filled with wonders and it will fill you with wonders. But it will take you some 13 hours to watch it, and that is like peering through a pinhole for an instant at the most beautiful sight that anyone could ever see - it is an eyeblink.
It's like the Venerable Bede's famous quote:
"O King, the present life of men on earth is like the flight of a single sparrow through the hall where, in winter, you sit with your captains and ministers. Entering at one door and leaving by another, while it is inside it is untouched by the wintry storm; but this brief interval of calm is over in a moment, and it returns to the winter whence it came, vanishing from your sight."
You can watch it for free here, in lo-res Youtube glory:
Episode 1 - The Shores Of The Cosmic Ocean
Episode 2 - One Voice In The Cosmic Fugue
Episode 3 - The Harmony Of The Worlds
Episode 4 - Heaven & Hell
Episode 5 - Blues for a Red Planet
Episode 6 - Traveller's Tales
Episode 7 - The Backbone of the Night
Episode 8 - Journeys in Space & Time
Episode 9 - The Lives of the Stars
Episode 10 - The Edge of Forever
Episode 11 - The Persistence of Memory
Episode 12 - Encyclopædia Galactica
Episode 13 - Who Speaks for Earth?
I wonder if you could even spare the time - one hour of each workday evening for two weeks - to watch Cosmos right through?
The sum total of the demonstrable truths of what we can tell about the world is called "science". It isn't a thing, it's not a worldview or a state of mind or a process. It's just a very big list of facts, carefully worked out and tested.
But our modern educational system says that all this is just an alternative and that it's perfectly OK to sail through secondary school and university, choosing to completely ignore the whole thing and just learn about, say, one type of music or one type of poetry.
This is an injustice, a mistake, so vast that I can't find the words to describe it.
It is one that you can undo, but to do so will require dedicating a significant portion of the rest of your life to it.
It is not something one can acquire from a few chats in the pub and writing them down.
Meanwhile, back to the one-room art gallery in the airship for a moment.
The religious mindset is to say that the paintings in the room are the whole world and that you must completely ignore the view out of the window, that everything else you can see is all lies. It is, ultimately, nothing more than hate and fear of the truth. The different religions can't even agree on a set of paintings, but all agree that the truth is to be ignored and denied. They say that what is most important is not observation, but the magic property of belief in the images in the paintings.
I do not care how beautiful the paintings are. I do not care if the paintings offer the greatest source of reassurance against fear, that they tell one that one's life has meaning and matters and is important when one needs that feeling of safety more than ever.
No. What matters is that they deny the truth. They tell their faithful not to believe in experience, in reality, but in myths that cannot be shown to be real. They say that seeking to show them as real or not is evil, and extended all the way to the ultimate, they teach, without exception, that to test the truth is wrong and evil and that you must accept the stories instead.
To deny the view from the window, to tell people not even to look, is a hateful, wretched and evil thing, and this is why I have no respect for any faith, individual or institutionally collective.
It is a destroyer of minds and lives. I hate it and I would like to see it extirpated from the world. The real world is infinitely more beautiful and majestic and moving than any of the lies of any religion, so vastly greater than the miserable myths of ancient primitives that those "prophets" could not even begin to conceive of the greater truths they were denying. It doesn't matter if they thought they were gaining power and prestige or if they really thought they were saving some alleged magical parts of the people they ordered around.
The truth will make you free, and the only way to tell if something is true is to test it. Don't take people's word for it. Ask for the evidence. If it's real, they will happily oblige. If they don't - if they say, no, read this book, listen to this man's words, THIS is the REAL truth, this is all you need - then they are fakers and liars. It's really simple.