Daryl Ilbury

Archive for February, 2015|Monthly archive page

Provisional truth – the best science can offer

In Free-thinking, Science on February 28, 2015 at 10:58 am

Prof Bengt Gustafsson

What is truth? It’s a question that has baffled and motivated philosophers for centuries. Before the term ‘scientist’ found its way into the English lexicon sometime in the 19th Century, the study of the natural world was left in the hands – or should that be ‘minds’ – of philosophers. Today’s scientists can therefore trace their lineage back to some of the world’s greatest thinkers whose quarry was the elusive notion of ‘truth’.

So much of which we know about the world around us – what for us is the ‘truth’ – is based on scientific evidence, but the nature of scientific evidence means that that ‘truth’ is, at best, provisional. This was highlighted by Prof Bengt Gustafsson at a recent lecture at the University of Cape Town titled ‘The emergence of true existence in physics, astrophysics and cosmology’. Gustafsson is a Swedish astronomer and emeritus professor of theoretical astrophysics at Uppsala University; but he is also a well-known populariser of science and has published in cross-disciplinary areas including research ethics, social responsibilities of science, science-religion interaction, science policy, science teaching and more.

The lecture room was packed with physicists, astrophysicists, mathematicians and other academics, all of whom are responsible for shaping our knowledge of the world around us. They each hypothesise and rigorously test their hypotheses, before presenting their findings to their peers for critical examination. Their findings are then tested by others keen to find fault for no other reason than to ensure the veracity of science. This process is repeated over and over again across different but associated fields of research until the resultant converging evidence supports a central hypothesis. This then becomes, for the scientists studying it, an acceptable explanation for a phenomenon. Science has a term for this: a scientific theory.

Religious apologists are quick to leap onto the term ‘theory’ suggesting that it means that it is simply an idea, a notion or a premise thrown together by scientists. This is nonsense, and is simply used by religious apologists to ‘justify’ the existence of deities, or what is known as ‘the god of the gaps‘. It is also an ignorant interpretation of the term ‘scientific theory’. Scientists know that what they know is provisional, but that doesn’t mean they doubt what they know. They simply acknowledge that their understanding of our natural world is incomplete, and that science is continually working to know more.

The famous Irish comedian, astrophysics fan and science TV programme host Dara O’Briain puts it best: “If science knew everything, it would stop”.

And that’s the truth.

The right to die is the right to live

In Eish!, Free-thinking, Science on February 7, 2015 at 9:03 am

sufferOn Friday 6th February, the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) took a major, bold step towards common sense when it unanimously reversed its stance on physician-assisted suicide

In 1993 it had passed a ruling – on a vote of 5-4 – not to allow a seriously ill woman, Sue Rodriguez, have a physician assist her death. On Friday the SSC felt that shifts in public opinion towards a person’s right to die with dignity and the gaining of legal traction of physician-assisted suicide in other parts of the world, supported an overturning of their 1993 judgement. In brief it said “if citizens have a right to life then they have a right to end it, too”. 

The decision was celebrated by many including the family of right-to-die pioneer Kay Carter who was forced to travel to Switzerland to die with dignity. Carter’s daughter Lee was a plaintiff in the landmark case.

Naturally the SCC decision has split the opinions of Canadians and anyone else following the story. On the one hand the decision makes sense to freethinkers, but on the other it doesn’t to religious conservatives around the world who still desperately adhere to an outdated notion that some ancient deity has every person in the world cupped in the cradle of his/her hands, and has the sole right when to select an individual to die (and, apparently, become an angel). Unfortunately the unintelligible mindset of the latter still dominates political thinking in countries where lawmakers fear the wrath of ancient morality.

Meanwhile, in the real world, the brutal suffering of people with terminal illnesses must continue because brave decisions such as those by the SCC are still in their infancy.

Peter Singer, a Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, tells the story of another Canadian woman – Gillian Bennett – to help explain the meaning of ‘life’ and when it actually ends. Ms Bennett was 85 at the time of the story and suffering from dementia, and argued that as her mind and character (call it her ‘soul’ if you must) rotted away, that which defined her as ‘alive’ and being ‘Gillian Bennett’ would rot away with it, leaving her an ’empty husk’ – as a body, alive, but as ‘Gillian Bennett’, dead. She therefore argued for the right to end the living part of her body while she still had the last vestiges of her ‘soul’ intact. She also argued, rather originally, that the mechanisms – human and otherwise – that would be needed to keep that ‘husk’ alive would be a burden on the state.

Although the SCC ruling will not have any immediate benefit for people like Gillian Bennett – the court has given Canadian parliament 12 months to enact the necessary regulations – it does shine a light in a smothering darkness of religious fundamentalist thinking around notions of individual rights.

You can read the SCC judgement here.