Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Basis of Action

      As I mentioned in my posting of August 28, the difference between a fact and a belief is, “When an event, idea, system, theory, etc. is supported by evidence, we accept it as a fact; when there is no supporting evidence we have a belief. Notice: we accept facts, we have beliefs.” Today I want to further explore the relationship between the two.
      Facts can affect beliefs, but beliefs cannot affect facts. It is an asymmetric relationship: it applies in one direction only. Although it rarely happens, one's beliefs can be changed by facts. Here is a well-known example:
Throughout the Middle Ages, Ptolemy, who died in 168 C.E. was considered the reigning authority on astronomy. His system explaining the movement of the heavenly bodies was based on the idea that the earth was the center of the universe, and everything else revolved around it. It was a belief held by everyone; the church in particular would allow no other explanation.
Using his home-made telescope, in 1610 Galileo observed the four moons of Jupiter orbiting the planet. Under the Ptolemiac theory this was impossible. Upon publishing a paper suggesting that the earth really revolved around the sun instead of the other way around, the inquisitition ordered Galileo not to defend that position any longer.
When he again published a book suggesting that the earth as the center of the universe was not the way things actually worked, he was tried and forced by the inquisition to recant his position. Additionally he was sentenced to house arrest for the rest of his life. In 2008, 376 years later, the church rehabilitated Galileo by proposing to erect a statue of him inside the Vatican walls.
(According to legend, even after his recantation, he muttered to himself, “But the earth does move.”)
       The point of this whole discussion is that the belief of millions of people for hundreds of years had absolutely no effect on the fact: the earth is not the center of the universe. Galileo accumulated evidence which established the fact. As a result, a revolution occurred in the study of astronomy.

      The second example illustrates that facts are waiting to be discovered – they are not created by scientists or anyone else.
In 1948, scientists George Gamow, Ralph Alpher, and Robert Herman predicted that as a result of the big bang - a theory that was not widely accepted at the time - there should be a cosmic microwave background noise throughout the universe. Because there was no evidence to support the prediction, it qualifies as a belief.
In 1965, Arno Penzias and Robert Woodrow Wilson at Bell Telephone Laboratories were conducting experiments in radio astronomy and satellite communications. Their instrument had an excess 3.5 K antenna temperature which they could not account for. They had found the evidence establishing the fact of not only the predicted background noise, but also established the “big bang” theory as the current version of fact. (Note that scientific facts can change as new evidence is discovered.)
      The point is that until 1948 there was no belief one way or the other concerning universal background radition, but who can doubt that it was there throughout the 13.5 billion years of the Universe's existence? Acceptance came when evidence was discovered. Even if there had been no 1948 belief, the discovery of the evidence in 1965 would have forced its acceptance and raised the question, “What is causing it?”
      Examination of the examples leads me to the following conclusions:
(1) Actions based upon facts lead to progress.
(2) Unless one is attempting to accumulate evidence to convert a belief to a fact, one needs to be very, very careful when acting upon a belief.
(3) Holding on to a belief which is contrary to the evidence is called insanity.
      Politicians, tycoons, religious leaders, etc., are you listening?
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      Even then, the world was a magical place where anything was possible. Natural history as we know it did not exist. As illustrated by the examples in the previous chapter, rivers, mountains, gods and men were united in strange combinations. Even though the minotaur, the sphinx and the unicorn had never been seen, their existence was accepted without question.
      Constructs – The Spirit Runs Through It.

      The book or a free download is available in paperback or on Kindle.

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