Are we making progress?



I came across a conversation recently between Phil Torres at Salon and Dr. Sean Carroll, a cosmologist and physics professor specializing in dark energy and general relativity at the California Institute of Technology.

This particular exchange caught my eye:

You also talk about “planets of belief,” a metaphor that one could have guessed came from a cosmologist! What do you mean by this term, and what makes a planet of belief “stable”?

Ever since René Descartes and his famous Cogito, Ergo Sum, people have sought out an absolutely firm and unshakable foundation for their beliefs. An honest poetic naturalist admits that such a foundation just doesn’t exist. We could, however unlikely it may seem, be brains living in vats, or be misled by a mischievous demon.

What happens, instead, is that we assemble together a variety of different beliefs about the world. To the extent that these beliefs are compatible with each other, we can think of them as mutually reinforcing, as if they exert a gravitational field that pulls together a “planet of belief.” A stable planet is one where the different pieces truly are compatible – we’re not just fooling ourselves about the consistency of different parts of our belief systems. If they’re not stable, beliefs that we simultaneously hold can come into conflict, forcing us to reject one of them (or just live with the burden of cognitive dissonance). Alternatively, new information can cause us to change our beliefs, as if a giant asteroid barrels into a planet and causes disruption.

As we get older, we tend to grow quite fond of the planets of belief we have constructed for ourselves. We build elaborate defense mechanisms to ward off attacks from competing ideas or new data. The system makes us comfortable, but resistant to change, no matter how much change might be called for.

It prompted all manner of parochial questions, for which I had no answers:

Is marketing one big, fat planet of belief?

Have we done enough to critique its beliefs with fact-based arguments and assaults?

Are we in the process of building the next generation of big, fat planets of belief?

Are we indeed, making any progress?


Perhaps somebody out there does.


Source: Salon, 08.05.16