Thinking about Scep

At Sydney Technical High School in the 1970s there was a group of boys who were particularly ascerbic when it came to matters of faith.

Well before I came to my own Christian conviction, a now deceased friend with the surprising name of Ian Leake (think of the potential – I.Leake) taught me a few things about scepticism. His nickname was ‘Scep’. He was clearly a Christian, but was known to all by his capacity to make insightful comments and jokes about all aspects of life. Tellingly, he was sceptical about the ways that sceptics were sceptical.

This morning I listened to two members of the Sceptics Association speak on the ABC and I remembered Ian with great warmth.

Scepticism from the official group is now quite an art form. The two scientists today made a number of very reasonable statements. All educators would say ‘Hear! hear!’ They said that we need to be critical thinkers, that we need to know our methodology in our search for truth, that we need to ask questions. We need to differentiate between fact and belief.

But then came the subtle rhetoric. They created a clear dichotomy between two types of thinking: thinking based on beliefs and thinking based on Reason. And they positioned sceptics as in the minority, fighting nobly against all of the odd-ball thinking generated by religiosity and conspiracy theorists in the USA. Theirs is the good fight. Religious faith is on the dark side.

It was the questions that they didn’t ask that caused me difficulty. I note one.

Is it possible to hold a theory about the Universe that doesn’t rely upon beliefs?

Rightly or wrongly, I have reached the conclusion that it is impossible to comprehend the universe without an element of faith. And I am still to hear a person who relies only on Reason. I hold the position that a valid understanding of the universe must be able to describe both the observed universe and the qualities of the person doing the observing. The observer is ‘in the system’ so the theory that is purported has to have an explanation of how s/he came to be able to make her/his observations. This means that there must be a theory of Mind as well as a theory about the universe’s origins or sustenance or make-up. Philosophy and/or Theology must inform the debate – not just Science.

If I take the view that is most regularly presented by the Sceptics Association- that one should preclude from the outset that the Universe was caused by an Intending Being (or God) – I am left with an entirely physical universe. These ‘words’ are therefore the result of electrical impulses. Personal pronouns I use to describe myself emanate from the eternal chain of cause and effect. There is no teleology. My ‘me-ness’ is just a characteristic like the colour of a butterfly’s wing, or the size of a shark’s tooth. Therefore there is no reason to believe that what my eyes perceive, or ears hear, or mind reads, corresponds to actual reality. This is why some theorists speak of holding a cohesive, rather than a correspondent, view of truth.

Professor Karl this morning was black and white. He is on a pathway to a correspondent view of truth. Therefore, he must have snuck in the back of his mind somewhere an element of faith. For reasons that he hasn’t outlined, he believes the universe is fundamentally intelligible. He has faith that his brain’s electrical pathways, and there connectedness to his senses, can deliver truth to him. Even though the process that created each an every element of his genetics was constructed randomly.

One could say that scientific evidence builds collectively to give us assurance of truth. But Science changes in its sureties. Before Einstein we were confident in Newton. Before the Big Bang Theory many held to an Aristotelian universe without beginning.

Do not misunderstand my intent. The onward search and investigation of science is critical. I am pleased that materialist scientists challenge philosophers and theologians. But myriads of people, including theistic scientists, Platonic philosophers, post-structuralists and other will offer a reasoned and logical reply that has different categories to those on the ABC. They are not precluded from being logical or reasoned because they don’t share the Sceptics’ Association’s epistemology. Like my friend Scep what I object to is the lack of reference to the problematic nature of knowledge in statements like the one on the ABC today.

Scientism, whilst drawing on much excellent science, is a faith position.

On making deliberate choices

There are a billion ways to parent. I don’t presume to be able to say much to any parent. But I can note a few brief observations. As a principal I do meet many thousands of parents. And I admire much of their ‘work’.

My wife Susan reminded me today of a book we read together when our first daughter was born.

It was called ‘Raising Kids on Purpose’.

She said: ‘I can’t remember too much of what was in the book, but I think all I really needed to know was in the title.’

Both as a father and a principal I agree wholeheartedly with her. Parenting and educating are both deliberate acts. Thousands and thousands of deliberate acts. It is my experience that effective parents and teachers are those that have the capacity to continually make considered choices.

From age zero to age I don’t know what.

One of the privileges of being a principal is that I get to meet many very effective parents. I meet people who choose to enjoy their children’s company, who invest in discussions about life’s big questions with them, and who savour time introducing their children to this astonishing world.

And they are parents who aren’t driven by anxiety. ‘Fear,’ said the members of the religious order in the Herbert novel, DUNE, ‘is the mind killer. Fear is the little death that causes total obliteration.’ Or, in the words of Peter, Jesus’ disciple, ‘Perfect love will cast out fear.’ In my experience, fear pushes people to make poorly thought through decisions. It was fear of electoral loss that drove the power brokers of the Labor Party to ungraciously remove Kevin Rudd. It was more fear that put him back in power. Commentator Paul Kelly notes the panic in the ranks. He describes the Party as ‘weak, panicked and faithless.’

In my experience the effective parent is habitually not ‘weak, panicked and faithless’. She or he is considered and purposeful. Yes, they are reflective, willing to apologise for errors and to change a poor decision. Yet they have thought about what they are trying to do in their parenting and they trust in their long-term approach to parenting even as they experience difficult choices. And they remain faithful to their child and their values. They resist the temptation to depict themselves as a victim of either their child’s choices or the wider environment. They are always looking for options. The child’s choices belong to the child: their choices belong to them.

Parenting is a long term commitment. Errors are redeemable. There is always an option.

And they choose their words carefully.

And they are not slaves to things that are less than themselves: alcohol, money…

I write this short note as a recognition of the wonderful skills that many parents have. Our society is all the richer because of their investment of time and care.